Memorial Day travel: Expect crowded airports, congested highways, rental car shortages


(NewsNation Now) — With coronavirus cases plummeting and 1.8 million Americans getting vaccinated each day, millions plan to travel for Memorial Day weekend. Expect crowded airports, busy highways, higher gas prices at the pump and a tougher time finding a rental car. And due to worker shortages in the hospitality industry, travelers may also need to pack a bit more patience.

According to a AAA Memorial Day travel forecast, a significant rebound of more than 37 million Americans are expected to travel more than 50 miles this year — an increase of 60% from 2020. The forecast also predicts that 34 million travelers will travel by car.

More than 1.8 million people went through U.S. airports on Thursday, and the number was widely expected to cross the 2 million threshold over the long holiday weekend — that would be the highest mark since early March 2020.

Flying over Memorial Day? Expect long lines at airports

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned travelers to expect long lines at airports, and on Friday he pleaded with Americans to show some patience.

As more Americans pass through airports, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) plans to hire another 1,000 officers by July 4, a peak U.S. travel period, after hiring 3,000 officers since Jan 1.

“We have already seen a sharp rise at the nation’s airports and will continue to experience steady increases throughout the summer,” Acting TSA Administrator Darby LaJoye told a news conference at Reagan National Airport outside Washington.

Airline executives say domestic leisure travel is at pre-pandemic levels, and the number of people passing through U.S. airports daily is likely to top 2 million before the week is over — the first time that has happened since early March 2020.

“Normally, Memorial Day weekend is really the kickoff to the summer travel season, but this year it means even more to everybody because as people are getting vaccinated and more comfortable going out of their house,” said Stephanie Sampson, spokesperson for the Los Angeles International Airport. “It really is a kickoff to a return to travel for so many people across the country.”

At Miami International Airport, officials are anticipating about 115,000 passengers per day over the six-day period that ends June 1. Spokesman Greg Chin said the airport numbers are equaling pre-pandemic levels. It’s a similar story in Orlando, where airport traffic is reaching 90% of pre-pandemic levels and people are flocking to theme parks that have recently loosened restrictions.

Eager to hit the road? Gas prices at the pump climb

Americans will see the highest gas prices in seven years when millions of people hit the roads this holiday weekend, the traditional start of the summer driving season, as gas prices climb.

AAA expects a 60% jump in travel over the same holiday weekend last year, with 37 million Americans traveling at least 50 miles from home, most of them in cars. 

The auto club and insurer made that forecast even with gasoline prices at their highest levels in seven years (since 2014) — the national average is above $3 a gallon for regular.

Experts say demand is partially fueling the spike. It’s also due in part to fuel delivery problems caused by a cyberattack that shutdown a major fuel artery, the Colonial Pipeline. Gasoline prices have largely stabilized since that hacking incident, but prices are expected to remain in the $3-per-gallon range during the summer, experts say.

The steep prices won’t deter eager drivers off the roads who want to make up for lost time due to the pandemic.

“The industry is referring it to as ‘revenge travel,’” said Jeanette McGee, AAA spokeswoman. “People have more discretionary income, they’ve got a lot of PTO (paid time off) saved up, so they’re going to take more trips and spend more money.”

Rental car shortages

Prices for rental cars are up sharply too — if you can find one.

The pandemic and chip shortages have made rental cars scarcer, driving up prices dramatically and causing long waits as people start traveling again.

To survive the revenue losses during the pandemic, rental companies sold off many of their vehicles and have had trouble getting new cars because auto companies have diverted vehicles away from fleet buyers to more profitable sales to consumers.

The higher demand has sent some rental companies to the used car market to find vehicles.

Hospitality industry hiring challenges

Lifeguards, restaurant workers and hotel housekeepers are in short supply. There may be fewer menu choices at restaurants, lengthy check-in lines at hotels and scaled-back hours at theme parks and tourist attractions.

The labor shortage is hitting the nation’s hospitality industry as it tries to rebound from a year lost to the pandemic but the staffing issues threaten to derail its recovery.

Some hotels aren’t filling all of their rooms or changing the sheets as often because they don’t have enough housekeepers.

“This is nothing like we’ve ever seen before,” said Michelle Woodhull, president of Charming Inns, which includes four small hotels and a fine dining restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.

The company has limited room reservations by 20 percent during some weeks and reduced seating at the restaurant, said Woodhull, who recently fielded a complaint from a customer who couldn’t get a table for four weeks.

“Unfortunately, that is a reality,” she said, adding that it’s better than delivering poor service. “What business wants to turn away business, especially after the year we’ve had?”

The reasons behind the worker shortage are hotly debated. Many employers blame the federal government’s extra $300-per-week in unemployment aid. Many workers can’t return due to childcare and health issues. But plenty of hospitality workers who abruptly lost their jobs a year ago have moved on to new careers and aren’t coming back.

The great outdoors: Be sure to make a reservation

Outdoor reservation systems are not new, especially for camping spots. But they are popping up more as parks brace for a busy summer now that the coronavirus pandemic is waning and more restrictions are being lifted.

Six of the most popular national parks — including Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Acadia and Zion — will require advance reservations for many visitors to allow for social distancing.

A parking reservation sign alerts visitors at the entrance to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve trailhead, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in St. Huberts, N.Y. A free reservation system went online recently to control the growing numbers of visitors packing the parking lot and tramping on the trails through the private land of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Reservation management systems are in place this summer season for outdoor attractions from Maui to Maine, typically to both protect public safety and natural resources. Crowds were surging even before lockdowns inspired more wilderness visits.

It’s a trade-off to visitors who must sacrifice spontaneity and ease of access for benefits like a guaranteed parking spot and more elbow room in the woods.

Advocates say the inconvenience is outweighed by the need to protect wilderness from overuse. Though the day-use reservation system at Yosemite National Park was enacted because of the pandemic, it has helped solve congestion problems that have plagued the attraction, said Neal Desai, a senior program director with the National Parks Conservation Association.

“We need people’s experience to match their expectations, and there’s a massive disconnect right now,” said Desai, who advocates for Yosemite. “People think they’re getting nature and beautiful trails and instead they’re inhaling car exhaust for hours and finding trails and facilities overcrowded.”

Waianapanapa State Park in Hawaii began requiring entry and parking reservations for non-residents. Yosemite and Rocky Mountain national parks have entry reservation systems in place.

In Maine, Acadia National Park on Wednesday began requiring a $6 reservation for vehicles heading up on Cadillac Summit Road, an extremely popular perch to watch the sunrise. The move, part of a larger park transportation plan, was designed to cut down on traffic backups, said park spokesperson Christie Anastasia.

“Sometimes we had people calling 911 because they’re literally on the road and they can’t go up, they can’t go down, they can’t make a U-turn to get off the road,” said Anastasia.

Glacier National Park in Montana recently launched a similar advance vehicle reservation on its 50 mile Going-to-the-Sun Road and quickly sold out the initial slots, prompting complaints on social media from frustrated tourists. Park spokesperson Gina Kerzman noted that more reservations are made available daily on a rolling basis.

In the Adirondacks, Shanzeh Farooqui said her group of friends initially couldn’t get a reservation for a hike to a popular overlook called Indian Head on their preferred Saturday this month. But they eventually were able to grab a canceled spot and her friends enjoyed the panoramic views on their preferred day.

“It’s a little more difficult,” Farooqui said on the precipice, “but if that’s what we need to do to preserve the land, then it’s not too cumbersome.”

Sidney Gleason, left, and Joe Gorsuch, both of Syracuse, kiss while taking in the view of Lower Ausable Lake at Indian Head summit inside the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, Saturday, May 15, 2021, near St. Huberts, N.Y.(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The number of Americans who hiked last year increased by 8.1 million, the largest one-year gain on record, according to the Outdoor Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Outdoor Industry Association.

National park visits dropped precipitously last year amid pandemic-related park closures and restrictions. But the drop followed years of high use and crowds are expected back in force this year.

“We expect that there will be significant increases in visitation at many parks as COVID mitigation measures are reduced, vaccination rates rise, and Americans increase their travel,” National Parks Service deputy director for operations Shawn Benge told a Senate committee Wednesday.

The parks service on Thursday launched its #PlanLikeARanger campaign, which encourages advanced planning.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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