Outlook for Memorial Day travel: congested!

Memorial Day weekend marks the start of the summer travel season. Looks like the 2014 holiday is going to be a doozy, with about 1 in 10 Americans planning to get out of town.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/File
A total of 36.1 million people are expected to travel 50 miles or more this Memorial Day weekend, auto club AAA is predicting. If that estimate holds, the largest number of people will be traveling during this US holiday since 2005. This photo shows thickening traffic on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend last year, in Chicago.

More than 31 million Americans – about 1 in 10 – are revving up to hit the road this Memorial Day weekend, according to AAA’s annual travel forecast. And another 5 million plan to take to the air, ride the rails, or float.

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional kickoff to the summer travel season, and this year's holiday weekend is expected to hit a nine-year high as winter-weary Americans head out of town, according to AAA Chief Operating Officer Marshall Doney.

“As we enter into the summer travel season with warmer temperatures and tulips in bloom, thoughts of historic cold are still fresh in the minds of Americans in many parts of the country,” Mr. Doney said in a statement. “The winter blues appear to have given Americans the travel bug and a case of cruise cabin fever as travel for the holiday is expected to hit a new post-recession high.”

“As the economy continues to improve at a slow and steady pace, consumer spending, disposable income, consumer confidence and the employment outlook are trending up, which is welcome news for the travel industry,” he continued. 

Leisure air travel is expected to rise slightly, with 2.6 million Americans holding plane tickets for this weekend. Another 1.7 million people are expected to board a cruise, train, or bus.

However, the overwhelming majority travelers – 88 percent – will be loading up the car and hitting the roads, which could make for slow-going on busy highways.

Some states, including Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri, have announced that transportation authorities will pause highway construction projects over the weekend in an effort to accommodate traffic swells.

"Memorial Day weekend historically marks the unofficial start of summer with thousands of motorists expected to hit the road to join family and friends to celebrate," Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider told Quad-Cities Online. "To reduce potential roadway congestion, improve safety and traffic flow, IDOT is suspending all non-emergency roadwork where possible and also providing a list of lane closures in advance to help motorists plan their trips."

There shouldn’t be too much sticker shock at the gas pumps, barring unforeseen problems at refineries, which could push prices higher. AAA estimates that prices will be similar to last year's, at $3.63 a gallon.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Association urges motorists to remain alert on the road this holiday weekend. In 2012, there were 377 crash-related fatalities during the Memorial Day weekend, according to the NHTSA.

NHTSA also warns drivers to remember to buckle up this weekend, noting that law enforcement agencies across the US use the kickoff to the summer road-trip season to enforce “Click It or Ticket."

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