After a smooth start to summer travel, disruptions, delays and frustrations have been mounting this week leading into one of busiest travel times of the year.
Nearly 51 million Americans are expected to travel 50 miles or more from their homes over the Fourth of July weekend, according to an AAA projection, which would break the 2019 record of 49 million. The organization considers Friday through Tuesday the long weekend, though huge crowds are also expected Thursday and the day after the holiday.
Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said numbers usually tick up in good years, but this year’s anticipated records reflect pent-up demand during the pandemic.
“The influx that we’re seeing now is still full-speed ahead,” she said.
But that speed has been running into thunderstorms, air traffic control issues and other tangles that are threatening a rough start to the holiday travel stretch. Here are five tips from experts to help travelers navigate the ride.
1. The best times to drive for July Fourth
Hope to set out for a holiday weekend road trip on Friday? Join the club.
According to INRIX, a transportation data company that forecasts road congestion for AAA, Friday is expected to deliver the worst traffic. Average driving times could be nearly 30 percent higher than normal, the company says, with major metropolitan areas such as Boston, Seattle and D.C. faring the worst.
On that day, the best travel times are expected to be before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m.
The worst times to drive Thursday are between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. On Saturday, drivers will do best to hit the road before noon; 1 p.m. is expected to be the worst time to travel.
Sunday and Monday should both see only “minimal traffic impact,” according to INRIX, before things get busy again on the official holiday on Tuesday. For the Fourth itself, traveling before 11 a.m. and after 6 p.m. is the best option; driving between noon and 3 p.m. is the worst.
Roads are expected to be crowded again on Wednesday from 3-6 p.m., so the best travel time is before 2 p.m.
“With record-breaking travelers expected on the road this holiday weekend, drivers should prepare for above-average delays to their favorite destinations,” Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at INRIX, said in a news release. He recommended using traffic apps, paying attention to local transportation department notifications and using the 511 service to get travel information.
For people planning to fly, the Transportation Security Administration expects Thursday through Wednesday to be busy, with peak crowds on Friday. Prepare to be joined by roughly 2.82 million fellow fliers that day - far more than flew on any single day around Thanksgiving or Christmas last year. The agency said its high for the Fourth of July holiday was on July 7, 2019, when it screened 2.79 million travelers.
The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, forecasts Thursday to have the most flights, with a peak of 52,564.
2. Read airlines’ flight change policies
The middle of an air travel meltdown is no time to start getting familiar with your airline’s policies. Hayley Berg, lead economist at the travel booking app Hopper, recommends studying up ahead of time so travelers know what they’re entitled to and what to expect. What will the airline do in case of cancellations or serious delays, for example? When should people expect a refund? What about meal vouchers?
If storms or other disruptions are threatening, Berg said it’s good to check if there is an option to change the flight without fees - moving the departure a day or switching to a morning from an evening flight, for example.
If a flight is canceled, travelers should know if the airline’s policy is to rebook them, and how quickly. Some airlines, but not all, will book new flights for passengers on other carriers with whom they have agreements.
Berg said policies specific to your flight should be available in the airline’s app or website. This customer service dashboard from the Department of Transportation compares airlines’ commitments to passengers in the case of controllable cancellations and delays.
3. Pick a backup flight ahead of time
Don’t just show up at the airport and hope for the best, experts say. Prepare for the worst, and you might just have a leg up.
“Knowledge and proactivity are the two biggest ways to take the headache out of unfortunate disruption,” Berg said.
She recommends checking in advance to see what other flights are heading to a destination on the same day or next day in case there’s a need to quickly find a new one. Sign up for alerts from the airline; Berg said sometimes travelers will get a notification on their phone about a delay or cancellation before an airport announcement is made.
“Even a five-minute advantage over the 200 people that just got canceled with you can make a big difference,” she said.
She said if a traveler runs into a problem and needs help from customer service, they should jump in line and get on the phone in case one of those options proves quicker. Self-service kiosks or the airline’s app could also be timesaving solutions.
“Everyone gets in those big long lines and they take forever,” Berg said.
Even if no fallback plan is needed, Twidale recommends holiday travelers pack carry-on bags only, bring their own snacks, book reservations for airport parking ahead of time and purchase travel insurance in case their trip is interrupted.
4. Gas prices are down, but hotels are high
There’s plenty of good news where prices are concerned: domestic airfare is down significantly from last year, and so are rental car and gas prices.
For domestic flights, airfare has dropped more than $100, or 27 percent, since last year, Hopper says. The cost is roughly what it was in 2019. Car rentals are averaging $47 a day, a drop of 25 percent compared to 2022. And the national average price for a gallon of regular gas on Wednesday was just over $3.55, a steep drop from a year ago, when it was about $4.88, according to AAA.
Hotel stays are bucking the trend, staying in line with last year at an average of $197 a night - “which I’m taking as a win given how much prices have exploded since 2021,” Berg said. For those on a longer road trip who need a hotel along the way, Twidale says book that lodging in advance to avoid no-vacancy signs and higher prices as rooms fill up.
If you’re leaving the country to observe America’s birthday, the cost is almost certainly painful. Trips to many other parts of the world - especially Europe, a summer favorite - are uncomfortably expensive. Hopper says round-trip flights to Europe are averaging $1,370 a ticket, 33 percent higher than 2019.
While flying or driving in the United States might be cheaper this year, eating and drinking on vacation are not. According to the U.S. Travel Association’s travel price index, which is based on inflation data, the cost of alcohol and food away from home in May was up 6.3 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively, compared to 2022.
5. Where storms are disrupting July Fourth travel
Thunderstorms in the Northeast have already contributed to more than 6,000 canceled flights since Monday and more than 25,000 delays, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware.
For much of the country, the weather should improve moving into the holiday weekend, said AccuWeather meteorologist Joseph Bauer. But there are a few areas that could face bad weather soon, and additional disruptions could affect busy air traffic corridors later in the weekend and early next week.
Heading into the weekend, Bauer said there could be severe weather risks in the Northern Central Plains and into the Western Ohio Valley. The East Coast and Southeast should see calmer weather in the near term, but later in the weekend, showers and thunderstorms could be a risk into the I-95 corridor.
While the Southeast should have favorable weather this weekend, conditions could worsen moving into the Fourth of July. That could spell trouble for travelers returning from Florida vacations, for example.
“It’s not just the areas of the country that are getting the weather that are going to be impacted,” Berg said. “Even those people enjoying beautiful weather right now should be thinking about what are my other options if something goes wrong.”
Travelers should also keep an eye on air quality, canceled events and other disruptions due to smoke from ongoing Canadian wildfires. Several Midwestern and Eastern states were experiencing unhealthy air on Thursday, though some relief could arrive over the weekend.