LOS ANGELES — Even with fuel prices at extremely high levels, this Memorial Day weekend’s travel forecast is calling for heavy traffic nationwide.
That means more four-wheelers than usual for truck drivers to mingle with.
Truck driver Marvin Sanderson of Kentucky said he always dreads major travel holidays.
“It seems like they drive even more reckless,” said Sanderson, who hauls freight between Louisville and Houston on a regular basis.
“I just would like to tell folks to slow down and drive sensibly. It’s better to be alive than to drive like a maniac and get there 10 minutes before the other guy. Don’t risk your life.”
AAA reports that around 39.2 million people in the country are expected to travel 50 or more miles from their homes from May 26-30, increasing by 3 million compared to 2021.
This year’s number of travelers makes up almost 92 percent of the 42.8 million people who traveled in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
Around the nation, state departments of transportation are telling drivers — both of big and small vehicles — to prepare for more vehicles on the roadways.
In Massachusetts, MassDOT says drivers should expect increased travel volumes, utilize the agency’s real-time travel tools and resources, and take public transportation as much as possible to help get to planned destinations.
“MassDOT historically sees an increase in travel volumes on roadways throughout the Commonwealth during the Memorial Day holiday weekend,” said MassDOT Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver. “We are encourage travelers to plan ahead, use real-time travel tools, and reduce speed and not drive distracted to help ensure roadway safety for all users.”
Other states, such as Tennessee and Michigan, are pausing construction projects and lane restrictions to help ease congestion.
“As life continues to get back to normal as normal can be coming out of the pandemic, it’s clear folks are going to be doing a lot of traveling this holiday weekend and into the summer,” said Michigan Transportation Director Paul C. Ajegba. “We have more work happening than ever thanks to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Rebuilding Michigan program, which means more work zones to be aware of. We implore all drivers to slow down, stay alert and avoid distractions in all work zones. While you’re depending on us to fix the roads, road workers are trusting you with their lives. Let’s make sure everyone makes it home each and every night.”
As far as fuel prices, the average gas price in the U.S. on Thursday was $4.60 per gallon, according to AAA figures. In California, it topped $6. The high price of oil — largely because many buyers are refusing to purchase Russian oil because of its invasion of Ukraine — is the main cause of the steep gasoline prices.
The average U.S. diesel prices are hovering at just over $5.50 per gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Americans aren’t the only ones weighing their options as the summer travel season begins. Across the European Union’s 27 countries, gasoline has risen 40% from a year ago, to the equivalent of $8.40 a gallon.
Rising prices in the U.S. coincide with a COVID-19 surge that has led to case counts that are as high as they’ve been since mid-February, and those figures are likely a major undercount because of unreported positive home test results and asymptomatic infections.
Still, 2 1/2 years of pandemic life has many people hitting the road or taking to the skies, despite the surge. AAA estimates that 39.2 million people in the U.S. will travel 50 miles (80 kilometers) or more from home during the holiday weekend.
Those projections —- which include travel by car, plane and other modes of transportation like trains or cruise ships — are up 8.3% from 2021 and would bring Memorial Day travel volumes close to 2017 levels. The estimates are still below pre-pandemic 2019 levels, a peak year for travel.
About 88% of those 39.2 million travelers — a record number — are expected to go by car over the long weekend even as gas prices remain high, according to AAA spokesperson Andrew Gross.
In California — despite being home to the nation’s highest gas prices — the state’s nonprofit tourism agency also predicts a busy summer for the Golden State, beginning this weekend.
Ryan Becker, Visit California’s spokesperson, said his agency is seeing a lot of “pent-up demand” because of the pandemic: “I want to get out, I want to travel. I’ve had to put my anniversary trip on hold, I’ve had to put my 40th birthday trip on hold.”
Outdoorsy, an online rental marketplace for RVs and camper vans, is noticing that its renters have changed their plans over the course of the pandemic. Early on, people would rent an RV to travel cross-country safely to visit family. Now, they’re back to using the RVs as a cost-effective way for a vacation tethered to nature.
“I think everyone needs a vacation, I really do,” Outdoorsy co-founder Jen Young said. “Have we ever lived through a more stressful, challenging — mentally and physically and spiritually — time in our lives?”
Others shrug off the stress of the added travel costs because it’s out of their control. At a Chevron station in the Glassell Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Ricardo Estrada tried to guess how much the $6.49 a gallon price would run him in total for his Nissan work van.
“I’ll go with between 60 and 70 bucks,” the heating and air-conditioning technician speculated, eyeing the display as the price went up and up.
Estrada — just missing his guess when the pump registered $71.61 for 11 gallons of regular grade — has been forced to raise his business fees for customers to overcome the gas prices. He’ll be working over the holiday weekend but has a vacation planned in Arizona next month.
He’s flying, but only because of convenience, not cost.
But with airline tickets prices up, too — AAA found that the average lowest airfare for this weekend is 6% higher than last year — that’s not a sure bet, either.
The Trucker Staff contributed to this report.
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