U.S. Travel Rebounding for Memorial Day Weekend

© (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images) Heavy traffic is seen at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on May 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, as people travel for Memorial Day weekend, which marks the unofficial start of the summer travel season. - Global air passenger numbers could rebound from the coronavirus pandemic to top 2019 levels by 2023, the International Air Transport Association predicted on May 26. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Here's at least one sign that normalcy might be approaching in the U.S.: Americans wanting to get away for a holiday will be filling up the roads and taking to the skies in droves this Memorial Day weekend, with major cities in Florida, Nevada and South Carolina being top destinations.

AAA Travel projected recently that more than 37 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home between May 27 and May 31 – an increase of 60% compared to Memorial Day of 2020, when the height of the coronavirus pandemic led to the lowest number of travelers on record tracked by the automobile group. The top road trip destinations for the holiday weekend this year, according to TripTik searches provided by AAA, are Las Vegas; Orlando, Florida; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Denver and Nashville, Tennessee.

The massive increase compared to last year still doesn't represent completely normal Memorial Day travel levels, however. AAA notes that the projection for this weekend is still 13% fewer than the number of people who traveled in 2019. Even so, Paula Twidale, senior vice president at AAA Travel, said in a statement that "pent-up demand" is resulting in what is expected to be a major boost this year.

"We're constantly comparing current travel levels on a typical day, as well as holidays, compared to pre-COVID times, and what we're seeing is that a lot of traffic has returned to the roadways," says Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst with INRIX, a transportation data company.

While much of the increase will be seen on roads and highways – AAA Travel projects that more than 9 in 10 Memorial Day travelers will drive to their destinations – air travel should also see a spike. Nearly 2.5 million Americans will board planes this weekend, which is almost six times more than for Memorial Day weekend last year, according to AAA. Data from the Transportation Security Administration shows that nearly 1.9 million people went through TSA checkpoints on May 27, compared to just about 320,000 on the same weekday in 2020. But even as travel restrictions start to lift across the country, Thursday's number of air travelers is still about 500,000 less than it was in 2019. The number of people AAA expects to travel on buses, trains and cruises over the weekend also remains low – down 87.5% from 2019.

Travel rebounding does have other impacts. The national average per-gallon price for regular gas is $3.044 as of Friday, according to AAA – an increase of more than a dollar per gallon compared to this time last year, when the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led to cheap fuel. Prices are highest in Western states such as California, Nevada and Washington, but they are also much higher than the national average in Alaska, Hawaii and Illinois. Many of the states with the lowest gas prices are in the South, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

An early May cyberattack against the Colonial Pipeline, which is responsible for transporting about 45% of the East Coast's fuel supply, led to outages and long lines at gas stations across the Southeast, but Pishue says there likely won't be long-term effects from the hack that could affect Memorial Day travelers. And when it comes to the spiking gas prices, he adds, there shouldn't be a "huge impact" on the weekend.

"Gas is relatively inelastic," Pishue says. "So a large percentage increase in price only leads to a small percentage decrease in travel."

There is concern, however, about driving safety across the country, Pishue notes. He says that while INRIX can't predict how it will look over Memorial Day weekend, the company's data shows that "traffic fatalities are still high, despite a drop in driving" over the past year or so.

"That's sort of a trend that's continued through the pandemic. Data hasn't come out recently to suggest that it's ended," Pishue adds. "So that is definitely a concern for us, that, because there are fewer cars on the roads, that is leading to faster travel in general and, along with the increase in speeds, we have seen an increase in serious injury and fatality collisions."

Regardless of the related impacts, recent polling shows that Americans are ready to hit the road again. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau's biweekly Household Pulse Survey, collected April 28 through May 10, shows that about 4 in 10 respondents in several states had planned an overnight stay or trip to a place more than 100 miles away in the next four weeks. Polling by Morning Consult also shows that 58% of U.S. adults – the highest rate in the weekly poll since April 2020 – feel comfortable taking a vacation, and they are most excited to resume traveling compared to dining out or shopping at malls.

Twidale, of AAA Travel, said in her statement that the increase in Memorial Day travel this year is a "strong indicator for the summer." Another recent survey, conducted by The Harris Poll, found that 77% of respondents are planning to travel this summer, compared to just 29% last summer during the height of the pandemic.

Pishue agrees that "travel levels, like the miles people travel, will probably come back to 'normal' soon." But he adds that new daily driving patterns beyond weekend trips, such as morning commute traffic levels that have remained low recently depending on the location, might be here to stay, at least for now.

"I think the pattern, how it goes throughout the day, may look a little bit different for a while," Pishue says.

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