Busiest roads, worst times to travel: What to expect this Memorial Day weekend

The highways and airways should be significantly more crowded this year versus 2020 as vaccinations continue to ramp up and national COVID-19 cases plunge, but the increase in travel traffic will still fall short of pre-pandemic levels.

AAA estimates more than 37 million people are expected to travel by either air or ground this upcoming weekend, marking a 60% increase from last year when only 23 million traveled, the lowest on record since AAA began recording in 2000. The forecast is still 5.7 million shy, or 13% lower, than pre-pandemic travel volume.

Read more: 5 hottest destinations for Memorial Day weekend

Homebound-weary travelers will also face higher costs this year as they set out.

“We have so much pent up demand for travel, people are eager to hit the road or get to the airport,” Jeanette McGee, AAA spokesperson, told Yahoo Money. “The higher gas prices will not keep people home."

On the road

Motorists will have to contend with a host of issues, notably traffic, rental car shortages, and high gas prices.

The worst days and times to travel in most of the major metros is Thursday or Friday afternoons into early evening, according to data from Inrix provided to Yahoo Money from AAA. 

Rental cars are also in short supply after rental car companies slashed fleets early in the pandemic to keep pace with cratering demand. The imbalance translates to high costs for renters — if they’re lucky enough to secure a rental at all.

Jonathan Weinberg, CEO and co-founder of AutoSlash, told Yahoo Money in April that rental cars in Hawaii are seeing a 9,900% increase in pricing compared with 2020. Visitors to Orlando, Denver, Las Vegas, Honolulu, and Maui will see the worst inventory shortages and highest prices, according to an analysis by Allianz Partners USA.

Another concern for drivers: pump pricing and availability. While AAA gas price surveys reveal that motorists are aware of higher gas prices, they aren’t upending travel plans, McGee said. Instead, drivers are changing their destinations to be closer to home or adjusting their itineraries to include free or discounted activities, McGee said.

The national gas price reached a seven-year high this month when the daily average shot up more than 14 cents from April and more than $1 from May 2020, per AAA. The average has since stabilized since the resolution of the Colonial Pipeline disruption earlier this month.

“We drove it up to a high of $3.04 and we've seen a little relief,” McGee said, adding that Wednesday’s national average has slightly receded to $3.03 but price fluctuation, especially in tourist hotspots, through the holiday is to be expected.

In the air

Crowds, waits, and expensive fares could be the norm for the 2.5 million air travelers venturing out this weekend.

Domestic air travel is rebounding with the TSA clocking a pandemic-high screening of 1.86 million people at U.S. airports on May 23. Compared with the same day in 2019, that’s still down more than 11%, but up a staggering 85% from 267,451 last year.

The increased passenger volume also comes with higher prices, with round-trip fares up 12% since April, according to Hopper, the travel forecasting app.

Travelers may also face longer wait times in airports. To maintain social distancing protocols, the TSA warns Americans to budget extra time and expect delays at security checkpoints.

“For those passengers returning to travel for the first time since 2019, be aware that some processes at the checkpoint have changed and some, like removing your shoes, remain in place,” said Darby LaJoye, senior official performing the duties of the TSA Administrator. “Additionally, during high volume months, travelers should plan to arrive early at the airport to complete the airport screening process and arrive timely at their departure gate.”

How to survive Memorial Day traffic

Those headed to Sin City should brace themselves for crowds this weekend as Las Vegas comes in at No. 1 on both AAA and Hopper’s forecasts for top destinations based on online search traffic and hotel and car rental bookings. Orlando is also primed to see crowds, coming in No. 2 and No. 3 for AAA and Hopper’s respective estimates. 

Other hot spots include Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Denver, Nashville, and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, according to the two forecasts.

For a safe and breakdown-free road trip, AAA suggests that motorists exercise good judgment and precautions while behind the wheel:

  • Plan an advance route and road alternatives to avoid gridlocked highways or slowdowns.

  • Avoid peak commute times, especially Thursday and Friday evenings.

  • Don’t run on fumes. Refuel when you hit a quarter of a tank to avoid accidentally hitting empty.

  • Call ahead to gas stations to check on fuel supplies if you're in a region still recovering from this month’s pipeline disruption.

  • Be prepared for the unexpected by stashing an emergency roadside kit in your vehicle along with snacks and pandemic-era measures like masks and cleaning supplies.

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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