Memorial Day travel expected to be 'taking off' despite higher prices, AAA projects

A Delta employee helps travelers check in at the Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on April 19. AAA projects a rise in Memorial Day weekend travel at the end of the month.

A Delta employee helps travelers check in at the Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on April 19. AAA projects a rise in Memorial Day weekend travel at the end of the month. (Mengshin Lin, Deseret News)



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SALT LAKE CITY — Memorial Day travel is forecast to increase by over 8% from last year despite inflation and the highest gas prices on record, according to a new AAA report published Tuesday.

The association estimates that 39.2 million Americans will travel for the upcoming holiday, which would be 3 million more travelers than the holiday weekend last year. If true, the numbers would also be the closest they have been since the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in shutdowns in March 2020, decimating the travel industry.

"Memorial Day is always a strong predictor of what's to come for summer travel. Based on our projections, travel isn't just picking up speed, it's taking off," said Rolando Flores, AAA Utah's senior vice president of membership and travel, in a statement.

Most of the projected travelers are expected to drive. The forecast projects nearly 35 million leisure motorists on U.S. roads between May 27 and May 31. A little over 3 million more people are expected to fly during the same period of time. May 26 and May 27 are expected to be the busiest travel days across the U.S., while Memorial Day itself (May 30), will be the lightest.

This wouldn't only be over an 8% increase from last year's travel, but almost a 70% increase from when the country was still at the height of the first wave of COVID-19 two years ago. The 2022 projects are also about 8% below 2019 levels, showcasing how difficult it has been for the travel industry to get back where it was in 2019. The forecast is based on research and economic models conducted by London-based IHS Markit.

The projected rise in Memorial Day travel comes even as gas prices remain at record-level highs. The average price for a gallon of gas is $4.52, according to AAA. Western and northeastern states are where prices are even higher. The average price of gas is currently about $4.57 in Utah, while California has the highest cost at over $6 per gallon.

As for airline travel, Salt Lake City International Airport officials are still calculating data used for their own Memorial Day travel forecast. Its forecast is based on tickets purchased for flights arriving and departing from the airport, which is much clearer a few days before the holiday rush.

That said, Nancy Volmer, the airport's spokeswoman, told KSL.com Tuesday that all indications point to a busy holiday and summer at the airport. That's because their traffic volumes have closed in on pre-pandemic levels in recent months and Memorial Day is typically one of the busier holidays.

The reason might be because of what experts call "revenge travel," the theory that people are willing to spend more money to enjoy experiences lost during the pandemic. It's why about 6 of 10 Americans say they plan on traveling this summer and over one-third polled said they plan to travel more this summer, despite nearly two-thirds saying high gas prices will impact travel decisions, according to the U.S. Travel Association's April 28 travel data report.

"People are definitely traveling again," Volmer said. "I think the American public is just tired of putting their plans on hold. They want to get out and visit friends and family, and they want to go out and explore again."

Americans aren't just traveling more but they're spending more, paying for first-class seats on flights to have a more enjoyable experience as they fly. It's helped airlines fill those seats because business travel is still lagging behind leisure travel's rebound.

But another reason holiday travel might be taking off at Salt Lake City International Airport is that new travel options are becoming available in the new few weeks, which began over the weekend with the return of Delta Airlines' nonstop service to London. Other major new or returning routes include:

Utahns who plan to travel for the holiday — and summer — are encouraged to plan ahead. AAA Utah advises travelers to book summer travel early so they can lock in the best rates and discounts, especially since rates "are already skewing higher and with greater demand."

Volmer adds that there are still many people who haven't experienced the new Salt Lake City International Airport. She recommends new flyers review the airport's layout map ahead of time to avoid any confusion before they arrive.

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Utah travel and tourismUtah transportationSalt Lake CountyUtahBusiness & Tech
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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