A record number of Washington, D.C.-area residents will embark on Independence Day road trips this year, a product of low gas prices and the July Fourth holiday coinciding with a weekend, AAA Mid-Atlantic says.
For the third consecutive year, more than a million residents of the capital region are expected to travel over the holiday – forgoing fireworks on the National Mall – and nearly 9 in 10 will drive to their destinations, according to figures slated to be released Monday by AAA Mid-Atlantic.
They’ll be among nearly 43 million Americans who plan to travel 50 or more miles from home to observe the nation’s 240th birthday, the highest Fourth of July travel volume in the 15 years the group has been compiling such data, according to AAA.
It’s about 5 million more Americans than traveled for the Memorial Day weekend.
July 4 is next Monday.
“Historically, whenever July Fourth happens to fall on a Friday or a Monday, as it does this year, it essentially becomes a four-day holiday weekend for most travelers,” John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said in a statement.
Fourth of July travel has been up in recent years, following a downturn that coincided with the Great Recession and calendars that shrank travel windows.
In 2013, for example, AAA Mid-Atlantic forecast a decline in travel from a year earlier because of a shorter “travel period” with the Fourth falling on a Thursday.
In 2009, travel was down amid financial uncertainty and high gas prices across the country.
Perhaps further enticing holiday travelers this year, the report notes that airfare and hotel rates are lower than they were at the same time last year. Average airfare for 40 major domestic routes is down 9 percent this year, with the average round-trip ticket costing $207.
“The cost of gasoline is giving area residents a greater incentive to travel this summer,” Townsend said.
Added to that, weekend daily car rental rates in the Washington region are down 38 percent over last year, to an average of $78.
The study’s projections are based on research compiled by IHS Global Insight, which defines the travel period as starting Thursday and ending next Monday.
The hordes of extra travelers are sure to jam highways locally and nationwide.
Friday is expected to be the most congested travel day, according to Bob Pishue, senior economist with the traffic data firm Inrix. Nationwide, travel times may increase from 25 percent to 70 percent that day, he said.
On the East Coast, he said, drivers should plan for travel to take about 40 percent longer than usual, meaning a typical one-hour commute could take close to 90 minutes.
West Coast travel times are expected to be even longer. A normal one-hour commute in the San Francisco Bay area starting at 3 p.m. may take more than an hour and 40 minutes, Pishue said.
Across the country, he said, drivers should plan on leaving before 1 p.m. if they want to avoid long delays. The period from 3 to 5 p.m., when many are leaving work or starting their road trips, is expected to be the most congested part of the day.
Of the 42.9 million Americans expected to travel for the holiday, 85 percent are expected to drive, while about 8 percent – 3.3 million – will fly.
In the D.C. region, 918,000 people are expected to hit the roads, and an estimated 77,000 area residents are expected to depart for the holiday from the region’s three major airports.
The anticipated number of drivers in the region is up about 2 percent from last year, while fliers are expected to increase 1 percent; nationally, the figures are reversed, with 2 percent more fliers expected and the number of drivers expected to increase 1 percent.
“We are well on our way for 2016 to be a record-breaking year for summertime travel,” Marshall Doney, AAA president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This trend is welcome news for the travel industry and a sign that Americans are taking to our nation’s highways and skies like never before.”
Gas prices are one of several factors consumers weigh when choosing whether to travel over holiday weekends, the automobile advocacy group says.
The average cost of fuel in the District on Friday was $2.53 a gallon, which is 40 cents lower than the same day in 2015; regionwide, gas was 46 cents a gallon cheaper than a year ago, according to the report.
And the trend is expected to hold: This year, AAA projects the lowest Independence Day gas prices since 2005.
In 2014, the average cost of gas in the District on July 4 was $3.93 a gallon – in a year when July 4 gas prices were the highest nationally since 2008. But AAA said the improving economic picture at the time meant consumers were willing to spend more. “Willingness to take on credit card debt, not an increase in income,” was responsible for the increased travel, it said.
This time around, AAA says, “Both locally and nationally, Americans are getting their summertime travel groove back.”
No matter how you choose to travel, there are some things you can do to make the experience more pleasant.
AAA offers these tips for those planning on hitting the highways for the holiday: Check the condition of your battery and tires and have your vehicle inspected at a trusted repair shop.
You should also make sure you’re well rested before driving.
This is forecast to be the biggest year for air travel since the Great Recession, so fliers should plan to arrive at the airport early and leave plenty of time to get through security checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration recommends you arrive at least two hours early for domestic travel and at least three hours in advance for international travel.
Prepare for security by not overpacking your carry-on bag – remember, no weapons are allowed.
Follow the 3-1-1 rule: Liquids, gels, aerosols, creams and pastes must be 3.4 ounces or less, and all bottles must fit in a single quart-size plastic bag.
If you have questions about what’s allowed, you can tweet them to TSA at @AskTSA.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Faiz Siddiqui · NATIONAL · Jun 27, 2016 – 12:14 AM