This Memorial Day will see the second highest number of travelers on the roads and in the skies since 2000 and the highest since the recession, auto club AAA said today.
The long, unusually rough winter that just ended, coupled with a slow but steady economic recovery and gas prices about the same as last year, will contribute to a 1.5% increase over last year in Memorial Day travel, said Marshall Doney, AAA's chief operating officer.
AAA expects 36.1 million people to travel at least 50 miles from home from May 22 through May 26, up from 35.5 million last year.
More than 8 in 10 will go by automobile.
Of those traveling for Memorial Day, 31.8 million will go by automobile, a 1.2%increase over last year; 2.6 million will fly, a 2.4% hike, and 1.7 million will go by train, bus or ship, a 6.5% increase, according to AAA.
"While the start of summer brings thoughts of sandy beaches, warmer temperatures and tropical destinations, it is in fact the freezing cold winter that blanketed much of the country earlier this year that has generated hot demand for summer travel," Doney said at a news conference at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.
More than a million weather-related flight cancellations this winter, and average daily temperatures for the nation that were often well below normal, left many craving some fun in the sun, Doney said. "The (travel) forecast reflects that many people are sick of hibernating indoors and ready to enjoy some summer fun."
They are really, really ready to enjoy it, says the congestion mitigation firm INRIX, which is predicting a 25% increase nationally in holiday traffic congestion over a year ago.
"There's a lot of pent-up demand," said Jim Bak, a spokesman for the Kirkland, Wash.-based company. "With the severe weather we had in the winter into the spring, people are ready to get out of the house. This is the first holiday which they've had to sort of get out of the house and get out of town."
INRIX measures traffic delay, not people's intentions about traveling. It also does not look at how far from home people are traveling. "Given we already have increasing traffic congestion due to an improving economy, just a small increase in holiday travelers hitting the roads, in combination with increasing freight traffic, people picking up their kids from school and folks heading home from work" all contribute to the 25% increase in delay, Bak said.
For those hoping to avoid wasting any of their precious holiday time sitting in traffic, Bak says the best time to hit the road is either Thursday; before 1 p.m., Friday, ideally between 10-11 a.m., or delay heading out until after 7 p.m.
Best Western hotels, which has 2,200 hotels across North America and which sees 90% of its customers arrive by automobile, is seeing a 7% increase over last year in summer bookings at its U.S. hotels, spokesman Owen Clark said.
The cruise industry is faring particularly well, Doney said. AAA travel agents report an increase of nearly 20% in cruise passengers for the Memorial Day holiday. "Following a year of highly publicized operational challenges for the industry, Americans seem to be taking full advantage of the plethora of discounts and special offerings from cruise lines."
The good news for those driving this holiday: The price of gas -- $3.65 a gallon this year compared with $3.63 last year – is expected to continue to fall through the holiday, AAA says.