By Keith L. Alexander
When Joe Biden was declared president-elect on Saturday morning, Melissa Band hustled to her computer to price airline tickets from Florida to Washington to attend his January 20th inauguration.
Bland found a few available seats but waited until Saturday afternoon to book her flight. By then, the fares had gone up $100 (R1555).
And the only hotel availability she could find in downtown Washington was at the Hilton Garden Inn in Georgetown for a non-refundable $700 (R10 885) a night.
“Shoot, it’s worth it,” said Band, a 43-year-old high school teacher from Fort Walton Beach.
“I’m only staying there one night. It’s my first inauguration, and it’s such a historic one, especially for women and little girls, especially Brown little girls.”
Thousands of Americans like Bland are racing and contemplating travelling to Washington during the extended Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend to see Biden, along with Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, be sworn in as the nation’s 46th president.
Harris will be the first woman to serve as vice president. She will also be the first Black woman and Asian American to hold the nation’s second-highest office.
The event is expected to draw thousands of alumni from Harris’s alma mater, Howard University, and members of Harris’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s first Black sorority, which Harris pledged at Howard in the District of Columbia.
But getting here and finding a place to stay may prove more difficult than would-be revellers expected.
Air travel dropped dramatically in March with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing airlines to cut flights. While travel has picked up slightly, carriers are still flying far fewer flights, meaning fewer seats available at lower fares.
Hotels, like most businesses, were hit hard by the pandemic and were forced to cut thousands of employees at their properties as bookings fell.
That means at some hotels, in-room dining and other services may not be available, although they say special coronavirus cleaning and other precautions are in place.
Available rooms are often going for hefty prices because chains see the inauguration as a chance to recoup some of the revenue lost due to the pandemic, experts said.
Benet Wilson, a senior editor at The Points Guy, a website that covers the travel industry, said standard travel guidance such as cheaper flights through Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, probably won’t apply and instead travellers will need to be more strategic.
“Airlines and hotels are not stupid,” Wilson said. “They understand the historic nature of this inauguration. Prices will be going up accordingly. They will be trying to get every dime they can get,” she said.
Spokespeople at Southwest, American and Delta declined to comment on if they have seen an increase in demand pegged to the inauguration.
Travel and airline expert Joe Brancatelli of JoeSentMe said airlines’ computer models automatically increase fares whenever they notice demand on a specific route during a specific time period.
“I do think people will be shocked at how expensive it will be to fly into Washington around the Inauguration time,” he said.
Joe Perrotto cashed in his airline miles to nab two seats on a Delta flight to Washington from his home in Burlington, Vt., for him and his girlfriend. On Saturday, Perrotto booked a hotel suite for two nights at the Park Hyatt at $1,500 a night (R23 325)
On Sunday, Perrotto said he went back to the Park Hyatt’s website and discovered the same suite was going for $500 more a night. Less expensive rooms were sold out.
“This is making up for the three vacations we cancelled earlier this year,” Perrotto, 55, said. “I just felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see decency in action.”
Perrotto said one of the reasons he wanted to stay in a hotel in downtown Washington was to avoid using Metro or car services due to the pandemic. Being able to walk to the mall, he said, was most important.
Toya Taylor, 47, of Ridgeland booked her airline ticket a day before Election Day last week. But she couldn’t find an inexpensive room in downtown Washington. Instead, she nabbed a room for less than $200 (R3110) a night at a hotel at National Harbor.
As coronavirus cases continue to rise, Taylor said “of course” she was concerned about the large crowds expected to be huddled close together at the mall.
But she said she plans to have several masks with her and will keep hand sanitiser readily in her pockets.
But watching Harris inaugurated is worth venturing out into crowds, she said.
“For me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Taylor, vice president of development for her region’s United Way.
In August, when Biden announced he was picking Harris for his running mate, MiChelle Stephenson cashed in her 30,000 frequent flier miles on Delta for an airline ticket from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to fly to Washington.
But Stephenson doesn’t plan on being among the large crowd on the mall during the swearing-in ceremonies.
Stephenson said her concerns about the coronavirus led her to decide to remain at her sister’s home in Virginia during the ceremony and watch it on TV. But at least she’s near, she said.
“I just want to be in the same city as it is happening,” Stephenson said.
“As a life member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc., it is encouraging for me to have seen the glass ceiling broken,” said Stephenson, 55, a government operations security employee.
“Regardless of race, our 49th vice president is going to be a female. And the fact that she looks like me, that little Brown girls will now be able to say, ‘I can do that,’ is encouraging and I want to be as close as I can.”