A robust economy has put Americans in the mood to travel this summer.
According to AAA, nearly 43 million people are expected to take to the roads, rails and skies this Memorial Day weekend. That’s an increase of 1.5 million over last year and the second-highest volume since AAA began tracking numbers in 2000.
In the Washington region, AAA Mid-Atlantic estimates nearly 3.2 million people will travel more than 50 miles from home during the three-day weekend. Despite an increase in gas prices, most people will drive. However, the number of travelers hopping on buses, trains and cruise ships also is on the rise.
“Americans are eagerly anticipating the start of summer, and expensive gas prices won’t keep them home this Memorial Day weekend,” said Paula Twidale, vice president of AAA Travel. “Consumer spending remains strong, helped by solid job and income growth.”
That trend is expected to continue through the summer.
Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade group, said it expects more than 257 million people to fly between June 1 and the end of August — up 3.4 percent from the same period last year.
Officials with the Transportation Security Administration are also preparing for a busy travel season. The agency is projecting that 263 million passengers and crew will pass through security checkpoints nationwide between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. That’s about 10 million more than last summer. The agency said on peak days, it could screen more than 2.7 million people.
The projections are welcome news for an industry grappling with rising fuel prices and fallout from the worldwide grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max jets following two deadly crashes in less than five months.
Flight changes, security waits
While the tragedies don’t appear to have dampened the enthusiasm for air travel, they have put airlines in a tough spot.
A4A said that airlines have canceled roughly 200 daily flights this summer — a loss of about 35,000 seats a day. American, United and Southwest, which combined have 72 of the Max jets in their fleets, said the planes will remain out of service for much of the summer.
While airlines said they have reached out to affected passengers, travelers should still be sure to check their flights ahead of time, in case of last-minute changes. Many airlines have been able to replace 737 Max aircraft with other jets in their fleets, but that could become more challenging during the peak summer travel season. Other airlines have canceled flights on less popular routes.
There is no timetable for when the aircraft might be cleared to return to service.
The crisis at the nation’s southern border may also impact summer travelers, particularly those who are planning international getaways.
The Trump administration has already redeployed more than 700 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to the border to deal with the surge in migrant crossings and has plans to send more. CBP officials said most of the personnel have come from northern border ports, seaports and airports.
“While the current Southwest border security and humanitarian crisis is impacting CBP operations, we are working to mitigate the effects as much as possible,” CBP said in a statement.
Even so, in a letter to Senate leaders, A4A, along with five other aviation and travel industry groups, said the situation cannot continue.
“With international travel increasing at a steady rate, lack of sufficient CBP officer staffing at airports due to temporary reassignment, compounded with a lack of overtime funding, will certainly put considerable strain on CBP ports, harming both passengers and cargo throughout,” the groups wrote.
Officials are encouraging travelers to arrive early for their flights or take advantage of programs such as Global Entry, which allows preapproved travelers to move more quickly through customs. TSA officials are advising passengers to arrive two hours early for domestic flights and three hours in advance for international departures.
However, they emphasize the advice is not tied to the border deployments, but rather to the expected increase in travelers.
TSA also recommends enrolling in its PreCheck program, which allows prescreened travelers to use special lines. PreCheck travelers don’t have to take off their shoes or remove items such as their laptops from their carry-on bags.
Further fueling concerns about security and wait times at airports is the Trump administration’s plan to also deploy TSA personnel to the border. The move has raised concerns, particularly among Democrats, about the impact on airport security.
“We are deeply concerned that pulling hundreds of TSA employees away from their critical missions at our nation’s airports and sending them to the southern border will weaken aviation security and significantly increase the risks faced by the American people,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to TSA Administrator David P. Pekoske.
TSA officials, however, say they are prepared. The agency has hired an additional 2,000 officers to handle the expected surge in travelers, has increased overtime funds by 20 percent, and is deploying additional canine teams. They add that the deployments will involve less than 1 percent of the agency’s 60,000-member workforce.
Expect things to be busy
Officials say, no matter the mode, travelers need to be prepared — and patient.
For those traveling by train, Amtrak officials said bookings on reserved trains for this Memorial Day weekend are running about 5 percent higher than last year, when the passenger rail service had an average of 87,000 trips per day.
Amtrak said it will have additional employees staffing stations across the country to assist the expected rush of customers.
In the Washington region, the busiest travel day for drivers is expected to be Memorial Day.
“Area drivers will be stuck in traffic three times the normal delay during the afternoon rush hour for the duration of the two-hour period from 3:45 p.m. to 5:45 p.m., Monday, May 27,” said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “If you know what’s good for you, avoid traveling around those hours and times when roads have historically been busiest.”
Other summer travel tidbits:
● According to AAA, the average price for a gallon of gas has risen by more than 30 cents in the past two months. The national average for a gallon is now $2.86 — roughly the same as it was during this period in 2018. Gas prices have remained relatively stable and may even decrease this summer, but that will depend on world events, AAA said.
● Car rental prices are down 7 percent from last year. The average daily rate is $55, AAA said.
● Midrange hotels are 2 to 3 percent cheaper, with average nightly rates of $146 for properties rated two diamonds by AAA and $183 for those rated three diamonds.
● There are still travel deals out there for this summer, but to get the best deals, avoid traveling on the days around major holidays, such as the Fourth of July. Midweek, Tuesdays and Wednesdays can also be a good time to get cheaper airfares and hotel rooms.