Remember last year's Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are it will be much worse this year

You didn't think traveling in the summer would be easy, did you?

Highways and airports are likely to be congested in the coming days as Americans head out for a Memorial Day weekend getaway and then return home.

AAA predicts this will be the busiest start to the summer weekend in nearly two decades, with 43.8 million people expected to travel at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday. The Transportation Security Administration says up to 3 million people pass through airport checkpoints on Friday alone.

And that's just an example of what's to come. US airlines expect to carry record numbers of passengers this summer. Their trade group estimates that 271 million travelers will fly between June 1 and August 31, breaking last summer's record of 255 million travelers.

The annual display of wanderlust comes at a time when Americans are telling pollsters they are concerned about the economy and the direction of the country.

A slowdown, and in some cases a pullback, from the big price increases of the past two years could help.

Airfares fell 6% and hotel rates fell 0.4% from a year ago, according to government figures released last week. Prices for renting a car or truck have fallen by 10%. National gas prices are around $3.60 per gallon, about 6 cents higher than a year ago, according to AAA.

Johannes Thomas, CEO of hotel and travel agency Trivago, said he thinks more customers are feeling the pressure of prices that have stabilized but at much higher levels than before the pandemic. He said they are booking further in advance, staying closer to home, taking shorter trips and compromising on accommodation – staying in three-star hotels rather than five-star ones.

Many travelers have their own cost-saving strategies, including combining work and pleasure on the same trip.

“I have been able to adapt largely by traveling at odd hours. I fly late at night, arrive early in the morning, stay longer than I planned, and work remotely,” says Boston-based Lauren Hartle, an investor for a clean energy venture capital firm.

Hartle, who flew from Boston to Dallas on Wednesday for a work conference, plans to attend a summer family gathering in North Carolina but is considering further travel closer to home — and perhaps by train instead of plane.

Catey Schast, a nanny and piano teacher in Maine, said her Boston-Dallas flight cost $386 round-trip. “It wasn't terrible,” but it was higher than the $200 to $300 she paid in the past to visit family in Texas, she said.

Schast is planning a beach vacation in Florida in July. High prices may deter her from other trips, but “if I really want to go somewhere, I'm more of a how-can-this-happen type of person, as long as I have time off from work.”

As in recent years, it is expected that most holiday travelers will travel by car – according to AAA, that number is more than 38 million. The organization advises motorists who want to avoid the worst traffic to leave metropolitan areas early on Thursday and Friday and stay off the roads between 3pm and 7pm on Sunday and Monday.

“We have not seen a decline in travel since the pandemic. Year after year, we have seen these numbers continue to grow,” said AAA spokesperson Aixa Diaz. “We don't know when it will stop. There is no trace of that yet.”

There are certainly no delays at the airports. The number of people going through security checks has increased by 3.2% this year. The TSA said it screened 2.85 million people last Friday and almost as many on Sunday — the two busiest days of the year so far.

TSA predicts it will screen more than 18 million travelers and airline crew members during the seven-day period beginning Thursday, a 6.4% increase over last year. Friday is expected to be the busiest day for air travel, with nearly 3 million people passing through checkpoints. The TSA record is 2.91 million, set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“We're going to break those records this summer,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said.

The agency, which was created after the September 11 terrorist attacks, has sometimes struggled with peak loads. Pekoske told The Associated Press that pay increases for frontline screeners have helped improve staffing levels by reducing turnover from more than 20% to less than 10%.

Airlines say they have also increased staffing levels since running short in the spring and summer of 2022 as travel began to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a little luck from the weather, travelers could see fewer flight cancellations than in recent summers. According to data from FlightAware, US airlines have canceled 1.2% of their flights so far this year, compared to 1.4% at this time last year and 2.8% in 2022 – a performance so poor it prompted to complaints and increased oversight from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. .

Even before the holiday weekend began, however, storms caused widespread cancellations at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the largest hub for American Airlines. The airline canceled more than 200 flights, or 5% of its schedule, by late afternoon.

Stranded travelers were not happy.

“Our flight was canceled just before check-in. And now there are no flights here until Friday because (open seats on other flights) went very quickly. We may go for a drive. Isn't that terrible?” said Rosie Gutierrez of Allen, Texas, who was trying to get to Florida with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

American Chief Operating Officer David Seymour said the airline has been bolstering its workforce and technology in preparation for the seasonal rush.

“It's a long summer, but we're ready. We have the right resources,” he said.

American is offering its most ambitious summer schedule ever: 690,000 flights between May 17 and September 3.

United Airlines is forecasting its biggest Memorial Day weekend, with nearly 10% more passengers than last year. Delta Air Lines expects to carry 5% more passengers this weekend, kicking off its toughest summer schedule of international flights ever.

According to AAA, the top domestic and international destinations are well-known destinations. They include Orlando, Las Vegas, London, Paris and Rome.

What about nervousness about the economy?

It's important to note that people often say their own finances are better than average. In a February AP poll, 54% said their personal situation was good, but only 30% felt the same about the country's economy.

That could explain why they can afford to spend money on travel.

___

Rebecca Santana and Rick Gentilo in Washington contributed to this report.

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