Expect crowded airports and busy hotels, and tough luck finding an inexpensive rental car if you're traveling to Florida for the Memorial Day holiday weekend. But if you need a last-minute COVID-19 shot, Miami International Airport is the place to be.
“We are now expecting more than 115,000 passengers each day this weekend through Tuesday, which is equal to what we had pre-pandemic in 2019," Greg Chin, communications director for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, said in an email.
At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, officials expect more than 630,000 travelers through next Tuesday.
As an added bonus, travelers are being offered the COVID-19 vaccine in some spots.
Henry Hernandez and Karina Gonzalez, of Bogota, Colombia, said they were grateful to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when they arrived at Miami International Airport on Friday morning. The Florida Emergency Management Agency organized the effort, which runs through May 30.
The couple traveled to Miami with their children, Juan Sebastian, 2, and Laura, 6, to visit family in nearby Miami Gardens. It is their first trip since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“We had no idea we were able to get vaccinated. ... There are no vaccines in Colombia,” he said.
Hernandez said they felt safe traveling, and will be wearing their masks throughout their stay.
The Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau is anticipating hotel occupancy levels to surge above pre-pandemic levels, the agency's CEO Rolando Aedo told the Miami Herald. The visitors bureau projects countywide hotel occupancy to be as much as 8% higher on Saturday than it was on the same day in 2019.
“We’ve gone through so many crises as a destination, and the trend has been fairly consistent,” said Aedo. “We tend to outpace other destinations in recovery.”
On Las Olas, restaurants are hiring staff as quickly as they can to meet demand.
Visitors say they feel much more comfortable eating indoors, now that half of adults in the country are fully vaccinated.
It helped convince Marilyn and Jason Machusick, visiting from Ohio, to leave the mid-west and enjoy what Florida has to offer.
"Beach, weather, there's a ton to do, shopping, eating, drinking," the couple said.
Hotels across Miami-Dade and Broward are seeing their rooms fill up.
“The occupancy is good. We didn’t expect it to be such a boom. We have just been enjoying it and month over month we want to see a continued occupancy growth,” said Kevin Waldstein, general manager of Gale Hotel South Beach with Menin Hospitality.
Broward's largest hotel, the Diplomat Beach Resort, is set to open Tuesday -- giving people reason to keep visiting South Florida, long after the holiday weekend is over.
“From the top going down, every single guest that books a reservation with us over the summer period, ocean view-facing room," said Laurens Zieren, general manager of the Diplomat Beach Resort.
But the crowds aren't just heading to South Florida. The Orlando area is also booming with travelers as the major theme parks have loosened some of the COVID-19 restrictions in place since they reopened last summer.
“Our Memorial Day holiday passenger forecast indicates that we are approaching 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels, which is a testament to the resiliency of Central Florida,” Phil Brown, Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, said in a news release. “A combination of factors including the vaccines, availability of seats into the market and pent-up demand all point to a potentially strong summer travel season."
During last year's Memorial Day holiday weekend, Orlando International Airport saw 45,415 departures, compared to an anticipated 300,000 departures this year, Brown said.
“Most areas in Florida, they’re seeing high demand and we’re definitely expecting sellout areas in Orlando, Tampa area, St. Pete area,” Jonathan Weinberg, the CEO and founder of AutoSlash.com, told Spectrum News 13 in Orlando.
That's because the pandemic and chip shortages have made rental cars scarcer, driving up prices dramatically and causing long waits as people start traveling again. Rental companies sold off many of their vehicles during the pandemic, and have had trouble getting new cars because auto companies have diverted vehicles away from fleet buyers to more profitable sales to consumers. The higher demand has sent some rental companies to the used car market to find vehicles.
The holiday weekend arrives as Florida's number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 are declining. The state added 2,338 coronavirus cases on Thursday, raising the cumulative total to 2.3 million. Also, the state reported that through Wednesday 10.2 million people — about 48% — of Floridians have received at least one vaccination shot, including 8 million, or 38%, who have been fully vaccinated.