Summer Travel Season Expected To Heat Up

AAA predicts that more Americans will travel this Memorial Day weekend than any other since the start of the Great Recession. Those who do may find higher air fares but gas prices have leveled off.

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And if you're like me and trying to get away this holiday weekend, brace yourself for some headaches on the road and at the airport.

AAA is predicting this will be the busiest Memorial Day weekend for travel since the start of the Great Recession, and it's just beginning. This is expected to be the strongest summer travel season in years.

NPR's David Schaper reports from a big travel hub.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's finally going to be a warm and sunny day here in Chicago, and the forecast for the weekend looks, dare I say it? Almost summery?

It's long overdue after a winter many of us thought would never end. I mean, it just snowed again a week ago at this time. But we're pretty sure the cold is now behind us.

CINDY RICHARDS: People are ready to get out. People are ready for a vacation, they want to get on the road.

SCHAPER: That's Cindy Richards, editor of the online family travel magazine, Traveling Mom.com.

RICHARDS: I think the fact that the economy is in better shape means that people have a little extra money and they want to spend it traveling.

SCHAPER: Richards says most families will be traveling this weekend and this summer by car, and despite what your teenagers might think, she says a road trip can actually be a great family bonding experience.

RICHARDS: And when you can get all the kids in a car with the family, you know, multi-gen travel is big these days, they're putting grandma and grandpa in the back, too and everybody's going off for a trip together. It's a great way to get kids to tune back into family without all the distractions.

SCHAPER: The first priority, says Richards and others, should be minimizing the stress of trip, and stress number one across the country, will likely be heavy traffic.

RICHARDS: The majority of the traffic will take place on the Friday, the getaway day.

SCHAPER: Jim Bak is a traffic analyst at INRIX, a company that tracks and archives real time traffic and congestion data nationally. He says today's rush hour in most cities will peak about two to three hours earlier than usual for a Friday as people try to get an early start on their weekend getaway. And Bak says the gridlock will be much worse than usual.

JIM BAK: We're expecting on that Friday afternoon when traffic peaks in that 2 to 3 o'clock hour, that, you know, drivers will experience about 25 percent more delay than they normally would on a Friday afternoon.

SCHAPER: Bak suggests leaving before noon if you can, or waiting until after 7 to avoid the worst of it.

And if the only highway traffic you plan on seeing is on the drive to the airport, expect crowds when you get there, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTDOOR AMBIANCE)

SCHAPER: Outside of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, a long line of taxicabs, limos, hotel and car rental shuttles and personal vehicles drop off a steady stream of travelers while inside lines of people wait for ticket counters, to check their bags, and, of course, to get through security, as this is one of the busiest weekends of the year at one of the country's busiest airports.

KAREN PRIDE: Between Thursday May 22nd and next Tuesday, the 27th, Chicago's airports are expecting about 1.5 million passengers to go through both airports.

SCHAPER: Karen Pride is a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation, which manages both O'Hare and the smaller Midway Airport.

With such a crush of travelers, half of whom are just passing through while connecting to other flights, Pride says O'Hare is offering travelers de-stressing amenities, including better and healthier dining options, a spa and quiet reading and napping rooms.

PRIDE: We also recently opened a yoga room, which is in terminal three on the mezzanine level and it's right next to the urban garden, which is the first aeroponic garden in an airport in the United States.

SCHAPER: Such environs might be welcome as it's expected to be the busiest summer for air travel in six years. Airlines predict 210 million Americans will fly this summer and a record 30 million of them will be going to international destinations.

Amtrak is anticipating another record or near record summer for travel, too.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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