SALT LAKE CITY — Scores of travelers are expected to hit the road this weekend as Memorial Day, established as a day of remembrance of those who have died serving the country, also serves as the unofficial start of the summer travel season.
AAA Utah’s travel survey projects that 2.5 million Intermountain West residents plan on traveling at least 50 miles this weekend, a 1.6 percent increase over last year.
“High debt burdens, gasoline prices and uncertainties regarding the strength of the current economic recovery have not deterred (Intermountain) West residents from holiday travel,” said AAA Utah spokesperson Rolayne Fairclough.
“Many consumers intend to cut back on the distance they travel, as well as on entertainment expenses, to compensate for reduced travel budgets. Others will be opting for backyard barbeques, a staple of this three-day holiday weekend,” Fairclough said.
While more people will drive to their destinations, air travel is expected to be down by 5.2 percent compared to 2011. Approximately 223,000 Mountain West residents are expected to travel by other modes of transportation, such as rail, buses and watercraft — up nearly 14 percent over 2011.
Here's a look at what travelers can expect:
The AAA survey revealed that about half of respondents will not let fuel prices alter their Memorial Day travel plans. But 34 percent of travelers surveyed said they would economize in other areas, such as spending less on entertainment, staying at lower priced hotels or staying with family and friends.
Airfares over Memorial Day weekend are expected to be 7 percent lower than last year, while hotel rates are up 8 percent from a year ago, and weekend car rental rates remained virtually the same. The expenditures of a Mountain West family of four will average just over $652 for the weekend and the average road trip will cover about 677 miles, AAA reported.
"Our gasoline prices are some of the lowest in the country in the winter months, and then become among the highest in the summer months," Fairclough said.
The current price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Utah is around $3.77, compared to $3.67 nationally. Last month, the state average was at $3.71, while the national average was at $3.85 per gallon.
Highway construction zones will continue to impact drivers throughout Utah and officials from both the Department of Transportation and Utah Highway Patrol are urging drivers to be vigilant while driving through work zones. So far in 2012, there have been two fatalities in work zones. Last year, eight people died in work zone-related traffic incidents — commonly due to speed, distracted driving and not buckling up.
According to UDOT’s most recent fatality report, traffic-related deaths are higher than at the same point last year. To date, there have been 74 fatalities on Utah’s roads. A vast majority of these fatalities could have been prevented, said Robert Hull, UDOT director of traffic and safety.
“When we talk about safety on our roads, we often refer to something known as the four E's — engineering improvements on the roads, educational programs for new and existing drivers, enforcement partnerships to help ensure proper driving behavior and emergency medical services efforts to maximize the possibility of saving lives,” Hull said.
“A fifth ‘E’ is vital to achieving our goal of zero fatalities: everyone. It takes all of us to keep our roads safe and make sure we all get home at night.”
No new construction activities are scheduled to take place over Memorial Day weekend, however, drivers will encounter existing restrictions such as narrowed lanes, reduced speed limits and lane shifts that will remain in place to ensure safety, according to UDOT spokesperson Mindy Nelson.
Drivers are encouraged to check the UDOT Construction website when planning their trips by visiting udot.utah.gov and clicking on the orange “Construction” button, she said. The website includes an interactive map of all current construction projects in the state, as well as live traffic cameras and incident information.
Weather for the holiday weekend is expected to be relatively mild, but rain is in the forecast, according to KSL 5 meteorologist Grant Weyman. There is a chance of rain Friday, and a stronger chance of rain on both Saturday and Sunday. Monday, Memorial Day looks like the best day of the three-day weekend with highs in the mid-70s and clear skies. Click here for the complete forecast.
The possibility of inclement weather has done little to deter Utahns from planning holiday camping excursions. The state Division of Parks and Recreation reported that demand for campsites around the state is high — with almost every state park already open.
Reservations manager Emily Debois-Hearndon said the warm spring has allowed a majority of the state's parks to be open for more than a month. In fact, demand for campsites has been exceptional, thus far.
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"We're pretty filled up throughout the summer already," she said. "Because the parks are so popular, they do fill up especially on the holiday and event weekends."
There are 32 state parks with more than 1,000 campsites, she explained, "They get full a few months prior to arrival."
Chris Blight of Salt Lake purchased a tent, sleeping bag and other camping equipment Thursday at REI in hopes of taking his girlfriend, Kimber, on her first camping trip this weekend.
If the weather holds out and he is able to secure a camping permit, Blight is hoping to pitch his newly purchased tent somewhere in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
"(She) is from Korea. She's never been camping before or done a campfire," he explained. "We're going to make s'mores and hot dogs and camp out in a tent. It's going to be nice."
DeBois-Hearndon said there are still be some dates available through mid-September.