AAA predicts more than 37 million Americans to travel Memorial Day, experts lay out worst times

AAA Travel is predicting more than 37 million Americans will hit the road and take to the skies for the Memorial Day weekend, an anticipated rebound after the COVID-19 lockdown shuttered travel and vacation plans last year.

That would be a 60% increase from 2020 when only 23 million Americans traveled for the holiday, the lowest number on record according to the association.  AAA expects the rebound after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the green light for fully vaccinated people to domestically travel.

AAA said despite the expected number of travelers this year, it still falls 13%—or nearly 6 million—fewer travelers than in 2019.

However, travel experts said the 2021 numbers could fluctuate, depending on any COVID-19 hotspots that could appear across the country.

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"As more people get the COVID-19 vaccine and consumer confidence grows, Americans are demonstrating a strong desire to travel this Memorial Day," Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel, said in a statement. "This pent-up demand will result in a significant increase in Memorial Day travel, which is a strong indicator for summer, though we must all remember to continue taking important safety precautions."

AAA predicts 34.4 million Americans will the road, a 52% increase compared to 2020. Nearly 12 million more Americans will travel by car this holiday than in 2020, though this is still 9% less than in 2019. Meanwhile, the association predicts 2.5 million will take to the skies, nearly six times more than last year but still, 750,000 fewer people compared to 2019.

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Last year, some cities and states started to ease stay-at-home orders around the holiday but many Americans decided not to travel. Beaches, hotels and restaurants remained largely shut down in South Florida. In Virginia Beach, Virginia, the famed 40-block boardwalk and sandy shoreline reopened, but with spacing guidelines and groups limited to 10. Theme parks were closed at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando but reopened their entertainment and restaurant complexes, where guests had to wear masks.

Worst times to hit the road

With more than 34 million drivers estimated to pack the highways, INRIX has laid out some of the worst times and routes to hit the road between May 27 and May 31.

Atlanta--I-85 Clockwise; Hwy 81 to Augusta Rd ---Thursday, May 27, 3:30–5:30 PM

Boston--I-95 South; MA-9 to Coney St--- Thursday, May 27, 3:00–5:00 PM 

Chicago-- I-290 West; Morgan St to Wolf Rd-- Thursday, May 27, 2:45–4:45 PM 

Detroit --I-696 West; M-10 to US-94-- Friday, May 28, 2:00–4:00 PM 

Houston-- I-69 East; I-610 to I-10-- Friday, May 28, 3:15–5:15 PM 

Los Angeles-- I-5 South; Colorado St to Florence Ave-- Friday, May 28, 4:30–6:30 PM 

New York-- I-95 West; US-130 to GW Bdg-- Thursday, May 27, 1:00–3:00 PM 

San Francisco-- US-101 North; Golden Gate Bdg to I-580--Thursday, May 27, 5:45–7:45 PM 

Seattle-- I-5 South; WA-18 to WA-7-- Thursday, May 27, 5:30–7:30 PM 

Washington, D.C.-- I-95 South; I-395 to VA-123-- Thursday, May 27, 3:30–5:30 PM 

"Although vehicle trips are down as much as 40% in some metros, afternoon congestion is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. With the increase of holiday travelers to the typical afternoon commute, drivers in the larger metros should expect longer delays heading into the holiday weekend," Bob Pishue, transportation analyst, INRIX, said. "Travelers should anticipate delays to start on Wednesday and continue through Memorial Day. Our advice to drivers is to avoid the evening commute times and plan alternate routes."

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Along with the expected number of travelers, gas prices have also rebounded since 2020.

The national average price for a gallon of regular gasoline is $3.03, up two cents from last week. Drivers were paying an average of $1.92 a gallon a year ago at this time.

Analysts say the gasoline distribution system continues to recover from the Colonial Pipeline shutdown, and prices are expected to stabilize through the weekend. The nation’s largest fuel pipeline restarted operations two weeks ago, days after it was forced to shut down by a gang of hackers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.