Memorial Day weekend: AAA says 17,000 more D.C. area people will travel this year


More people plan to head out of town this Memorial Day weekend than any time since 2006, according to a AAA survey. Above, crowds enjoy a sunny day in Ocean City. (Judy Rolfe/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Forget gas prices. More people plan to head out of town Memorial Day weekend than any time since 2006, and some plan to skip school to do it.

An annual AAA survey showed an uptick of 17,000 people planning to travel from the Washington region for an extended holiday weekend, and almost 40 percent of them said they would take the kids along.

“I think since we’ve had no snow days this year, parents are less reticent about missing a school day to make the most of a travel weekend,” said John B. Townsend II of AAA. The auto club defines the Memorial Day travel period as Thursday through Monday.

Townsend said the fact that 875,000 Washington area residents said they plan to travel might be a sign that they feel positive about the economy, despite the relatively high price of gasoline.

“Holiday travel numbers are like the canary in the coal mine, an early prognosis of how the economy is faring and whether it has turned the corner and is ready to take off,” Townsend said. “Since the amount spent on travel is discretionary income, it is an indication of how people feel about their economic well-being.”

Not surprisingly, nationwide it’s the people who can most afford to travel who will take to the roads, rails and air. The biggest increase in planned travel is among those making more than $100,000. People who make less are less likely to travel this year than they were last year — probably a reflection of gas prices, which remain high despite a recent drop.

After peaking at $3.94 a gallon nationwide in early April, gasoline has dropped by 25 cents per gallon over the past seven weeks.

Almost 35 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more during the holiday weekend, an increase of about 500,000 travelers from a year ago.

“Americans will still travel during the Memorial Day holiday weekend, but many will compensate for reduced travel budgets by staying closer to home and cutting entertainment dollars,” AAA President Robert L. Darbelnet said.

Locally, drivers are paying an average of $3.68 for a gallon of regular, down from $4 a month ago. This time last year, gas cost $3.95 per gallon.

Overwhelmingly, those who plan to travel from Washington told AAA they would do it in an automobile. The 783,000 who said they will drive, a bump of 14,000 over last year, are expected to cause congestion Thursday night and Friday afternoon as those who set out to beat the traffic cause jams of their own.

Perhaps because of gas prices, but also because of the proximity of the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, local travelers don’t plan to go as far this weekend as people elsewhere in the nation.

“They will average just 570 miles round trip,” Townsend said. “In contrast, the average distance traveled by Americans during the Memorial Day holiday weekend is expected to be 642 miles, which is 150 miles less than last year’s average travel distance of 792 miles.”

Fewer people plan to fly from Washington this Memorial Day weekend than last. Although AAA said that nationally airfares are 7 percent lower this year, the 64,000 local people who said they plan to fly is 5 percent less than last year.

Although fewer will fly, 27,000 people told AAA they will travel from Washington by bus, a 22 percent increase over last year.

The AAA holiday travel forecasts are done by Boston-based IHS Global Insight.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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