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Crowds, traffic and delays: What to expect if you’re traveling July 4th weekend

Make sure to pack your patience, experts say

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
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By the looks of packed airports and the return of traffic, summer travel is in full swing. This holiday weekend is expected to be the busiest travel period we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic, with AAA anticipating more than 47.7 million Americans planning to travel for July 4.

“What we’re seeing nationally will be the second-highest travel volume for the Fourth of July since we’ve been keeping records, which is more than two or three decades,” says John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

With a mass migration of leisure travelers set to take advantage of the long weekend in re-opened America, industry experts predict — or perhaps warn — that the July 4th holiday will look more like Thanksgiving.

If you have ever been in an airport during that rush, you know that can mean crowds and chaos from the arrivals hall to baggage claim. It doesn’t help that airlines are struggling with mass flight delays and cancellations, either.

To better brace yourself for travel this Fourth of July weekend, here’s what else to expect.

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“Leave early and return late.”

For those taking a road trip, schedule your departure times carefully; you’re going to have company on the highways. AAA says 91 percent of all holiday travel is expected to take place by car.

RVs will be out in full force, too. Jon Gray, CEO of RVshare, a peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace, says while the company’s biggest booking day in history was this Memorial Day, Fourth of July is on pace to beat that record. Gray says RV renters are largely heading to bucket list destinations, such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore.

Where else are Americans going? According to data from planning app TripIt, the most popular destinations for flights are Las Vegas, Denver and Orlando, while the top vacation rental spots are San Diego, Portland, Ore., and Anchorage. For vacation rentals on VRBO, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Ariz., Joshua Tree, Calif., and Naples, Fla., are the most-booked spots.

Additionally, “travelers are looking to stay cool and escape to waterfront getaways for the Fourth this year,” says Caroline Burns, spokesperson and travel expert at HomeToGo. “We’re seeing most Americans searching for week-long cabin rentals in lakeside and beachfront destinations.”

AAA predicts theme parks, Denver, Las Vegas and Seattle will be among the top Fourth of July travel destinations; however, traffic can be expected across the country.

“If you live in, or you’re driving through a major metropolitan area, you should be prepared to brace yourself for significantly more delays,” Townsend says.

AAA says the times to avoid getting on the road are Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m., Friday from 4 to 5 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Monday from 4 to 5 p.m. Sunday is expected to be a light traffic day.

The association’s website also specifically outlines the worst travel corridors in the United States (we’re looking at you, Interstate 95), and the worst times to drive through them, but Townsend has advice that applies to everyone.

“The fact of the matter is that it’s still true to leave early and return late,” he says, adding that his ideal recommendation for travelers would be to depart on Wednesday and return on Tuesday.

Spending hours on hold with airlines? Here’s why and what you can do.

Get to the airport two hours before your flight.

More than 2 million people per day are regularly passing through airport security checkpoints. Many people are out of practice traveling — meaning it may take them longer to check in their bag, get through Transportation Security Administration lines, board and so on.

What does that mean for you?

“Get to the airport early,” TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein says. “The best advice would be if you’re flying out of a larger airport, get there two hours early. For a small airport, maybe 90 minutes.”

Forgoing checking a bag, or having services such as TSA PreCheck or CLEAR, may help you get through security quicker, but don’t use them as an excuse to cut your arrival time close.

Help move things along by making sure everything in your carry-on is TSA-approved. Getting your bag pulled to remove too-large toiletries or a wine key is going to slow down the security checkpoint line for everyone. If you’re not sure what items are allowed, visit TSA’s What Can I Bring? website, tweet them your question via @AskTSA or download the TSA app. And in case there’s any confusion: leave the fireworks at home.

“Please do not pack fireworks or sparklers — they are highly flammable,” Farbstein says. “The FAA has a regulation that you’re not supposed to bring them,” and that goes for either your carry-on or checked luggage.

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Expect hassles, delays and hurdles — but be patient.

Traveler infrastructure is still catching up with the spike in demand, meaning your Fourth of July trip may not go as smoothly as you would like.

For example, across the United States, the hospitality industry is struggling to reopen and operate with the labor shortage. As a result, travelers are finding it difficult to get into restaurants. If you haven’t already, make reservations for your trip.

Then there’s the airport and flying.

“Just expect it to be an odious, miserable experience,” says Bryan del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency. “And I say this as somebody with all the perks of first-class travel.”

Del Monte is referring to the issue of limited services at the airport mixed with the crush of leisure travelers. People are experiencing long lines at TSA checkpoints as well as airport retailers because of understaffing issues.

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“A lot of the stuff still hasn’t come back,” he says. “So think that through. You may not be able to grab something to eat before your flight. You may not be able to get that last-minute $82 phone charger.”

Pack a reusable water bottle and some food to hold you over in case you can’t get food at the airport or if your flight is delayed.

Because of the recent influx of flight cancellations and delays due to those labor shortages, plus bad weather, Jen Moyse, senior director of product for TripIt, recommends travelers keep a watchful eye on flight updates. The sooner you find out about your flight change or cancellation, the sooner you can figure out your backup plan.

Overall, del Monte encourages people to anticipate travel hurdles and take them in stride. Assume you will spend a lot of time in line, but be kind to the people working in travel along the way — from the front desk attendant to your flight attendant, who are dealing with an onslaught of rude and abusive passengers.

“They’re shot because they are no doubt dealing with irate, irrational people all day long — more so than normal,” he says. “I would like take some pity. If you do need some help, be calm, don’t get all bent and you’re going to get a lot more help.”