Just getting back to pre-pandemic volumes is no longer the metric of reference as holiday travel over the upcoming Memorial Day weekend is projected to blow by those numbers and could come in as one of the busiest since 2000 for the traditional start to the summer travel season.

And while both gas prices and airline fares are down from recent peaks, travel this Memorial Day weekend, regardless of chosen mode, is going to be significantly more expensive than before COVID-19 hit. And, industry experts are projecting Memorial Day 2023 will see some of the highest travel volumes since 2000.

AAA travel in partnership with S&P Global released an analysis last month that estimates over 42 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from their homes over the upcoming holiday. Analysts project 42.3 million will hit the roads, skies and rails this weekend, up 2.7 million from last year.

Per the report’s forecast, travel is expect to continue its rebound from historic lows during the pandemic, with this year’s volume being the third highest in the last 20 years. Over the holiday, the report forecasts 37.1 million to travel by automobile, 3.39 million to fly and 1.85 million will get to their destinations via bus, train or other modes.

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Traffic moves on I-15 in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 18, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

While automobile travel volumes are projected to be about where they were at in 2019, air travel is expected to come in above pre-pandemic levels.

“This is expected to be the third busiest Memorial Day weekend since 2000, when AAA started tracking holiday travel,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, in a release. “More Americans are planning trips and booking them earlier, despite inflation. This summer travel season could be one for the record books, especially at airports.”  

Citing data assembled by INRIX, AAA expects Friday, May 26, to be the busiest day on the roads during the long Memorial Day weekend. The best times to travel by car, according to AAA, are in the morning or evening after 6 p.m. The lightest traffic days will be Saturday and Sunday. Major metro areas like Boston, New York, Seattle and Tampa will likely see travel times double compared to normal.

“With lower fuel prices and more travelers on the road compared to last year, drivers should expect long delays this holiday weekend, especially in and around major metros as commuters mix with Memorial Day travelers,” said Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX, in a press release. “Knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic. Our advice is to avoid driving during peak hours or use alternative routes.”  

Nationally, gas prices have dipped over $1 per gallon since this time last year and according to AAA data, the average cost for a gallon of regular was $3.54 on Monday. Gas in Utah has been running well high of the national average for months and was at $4.10 per gallon across the state on Monday. But, Utah prices this holiday weekend are down around 50 cents per gallon from 2022.

Traffic moves on I-15 in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 18, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The cost of airline travel this year has been impacted by both fuel prices and overall seat volumes that were slashed amid the worst of pandemic conditions and have yet to recover even as the collective urge to hop and a plane for getaways has ballooned.

According to the latest Consumer Price Index data from the Labor Department, the average airline fare of $294.55 was down .9% in April from the same time last year. And while the current average ticket price is well down from a peak of $329.85 in May of last year, rates are running far north of the $264 average ticket in April 2019.

And holiday travelers can expect most of their other travel-related expenses are going to hit their pocketbooks harder than in 2022.

Overall inflation has been ticking down since peaking at 9.1% last June but was still running at 5% in April, according to the latest federal data. Per that same report, hotel rooms are up 3.3% over last year, eating out is 8.6% more expensive and recreation services cost 5.8% more than they did in 2022.

While overall airline ticket prices are similar to last year, AAA reports the cost of flying to some top travel destinations is significantly higher, in some cases up 40% over 2022.

Hot spots for Memorial Day travel this year include Orlando, New York City and Las Vegas according to AAA. Surging interest in holiday cruises, up 50% over last year, will also drive bigger travel volumes to port cities in Florida and Alaska, as well as Seattle.

Interest in leaving the country for Memorial Day weekend boomed this year, with international bookings for the holiday up 250% over last year, per AAA. The most popular destinations are in Europe and include Rome, Paris, Dublin, London, Barcelona and Athens this year.

Salt Lake City International Airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said the facility is prepared for a busy weekend on the traditional kickoff to the summer travel season.

Travelers wait to be picked up at the Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 19, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Volumes on the peak days of travel for the Memorial Day weekend for the Salt Lake airport are expected on Thursday and Friday with 26,000 and 27,000 passengers expected, respectively, coming through the front doors. A similar number of arriving passengers are projected during those peak travel days.

The overall increase in international travel noted in the AAA report is also reflected in travel patterns through Salt Lake International, Volmer said.

“What we are seeing in general is now that travel restrictions have lifted globally more and more people are traveling internationally,” Volmer said.

She also noted a shift in the motivating factors now driving travel with the worst of pandemic conditions receding further in the rearview mirror.

“Last year the buzzword was ‘revenge travel’,” Volmer said. “Lately what we’ve been hearing, trendwise is a bigger focus on leisure travel and combing business and leisure while traveling.”

Volmer said the busy upcoming Memorial Day weekend will likely be setting the tone for a 2023 travel season that is going to be busier throughout.