AAA predicts nearly 50 million Americans will come out of their COVID-19 isolation for Independence Day getaway
BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown — July 1, 2021 — As many Arkansans prepare for the long Fourth of July weekend that begins today, holiday revelers will face rising pump prices, inflated travel costs, and congested highways and airports everywhere they go.
At $3.09, the national gas price average is at its highest of the year and not stopping. That average will increase, possibly as much as another nickel, in the lead up to the Independence Day holiday weekend as the American Automobile Association (AAA) forecasts a record-breaking 47.7 million Americans will take to the roadway and skies for a holiday getaway. This year’s Independence Day weekend is defined as Thursday, July 1 – Monday, July 5.
While it is typical to see gas prices increase ahead of a holiday, especially during the peak summer driving season, pump price increases as of late have been noticeable. And with crude oil futures rising to $74 per barrel last week, the highest price in nearly three years, motorists can expect little relief at the pump following the holiday as pump prices are most likely to see increases through the end of summer.
“Today, 89% of U.S. gas stations are selling regular unleaded for $2.75 or more. That is a stark increase over last July 4 when only a quarter of stations were selling gas for more than $2.25,” said Jeanette McGee, AAA spokesperson. “Road trippers will pay the most to fill up for the holiday since 2014.”
Compared to last year, when many festivities were cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, road trip activity will be up 25%, according to Wall Street travel analytics firm Arrivalist. Heading into the Fourth of July holiday, Arrivalist predicts that Americans will take 42.9 million road trips over a long summer holiday, slightly less than AAA’s forecast but exceeding pandemic levels by 3.8% when compared to 2019 road trip activity. Still, 2021 won’t be without its challenges—from the quickly circulating Delta coronavirus variant to a current spike in inflation, travelers have their concerns, said Cree Lawson, Arrivalist Founder and CEO.
“Predicting human behavior is never easy, especially when external factors such as changing gas prices and the recent spread of the Delta variant are at play,” said Lawson. “Despite this, we continue to see travel demand hold at a steady pace over the last few weeks in our daily road trip tracker. With travel demand at an all-time high and the president’s promise to mark this holiday as an independence from the COVID-19 virus, we expect that Americans will continue to shatter records for the upcoming July 4th holiday.”
Among the key items that Independence Day travelers will pay a premium for when they hit the road are car rentals, hotel reservations, and short-term vacation stays. For example, Kayak reports that both rental car prices and demand are up more than 70% during the Fourth of July weekend compared to pre-pandemic levels and as much as 300%percent in some places, leaving many U.S. cities with car rental shortages and without affordable options.
While July 4th is historically among the most popular and most expensive weekends yearly to rent a car, 2021 has reached record highs with prices in hot vacation spots averaging between $306 and $436 per day.
“We’ve seen unprecedented U.S. demand for rental vehicles this summer and supply isn’t keeping up,” said Kayak CEO Steve Hafner. In response to COVID-19, many rental agencies downsized their fleets and are now having a difficult time ramping back up due to shortages in the car industry and a huge uptick in demand for rental vehicles, said the travel booking exec.
And despite those rising costs to travel, hotel and short-term rental operators are warning late decision-makers there may be no room in the inn vacation plans are not inked yet. For short-term rentals, average daily rates (ADRs) increased to $244.41 in May, which was 11.9% higher than a year ago and 21.4% higher than May 2019.
“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 20% gains in demand each year had been the norm.” said Scott Shatford, CEO of AirDNA. “Combining pent-up demand driving occupancy levels this spring with a hot vacation season in summer and increased flexibility for travel this fall, it’s going to be an epic year for the industry.”
And while road trips by car is still the most preferable mode of transportation during the holiday weekend, with 43.6 million Americans driving to their destinations, the hard-hit airline and cruise ship industries are also showing signs of recovery heading into the second half of 2021.
According to AAA, other than cars, another 620,000 Americans are expected to travel by other modes of transportation this Independence Day, an increase of over 72% compared to last year, but 83% lower than in 2019. This includes travel by bus and train, and the return of cruising.
After road trips, air travel volume is also expected to rise with 3.5 million people planning to fly. That higher volume will put considerable stress on the nation’s airports and airlines as the number of passengers reach 90% of pre-pandemic levels, and 164% compared to last year.
“Travel is in full swing this summer, as Americans eagerly pursue travel opportunities they’ve deferred for the last year-and-a-half,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “We saw strong demand for travel around Memorial Day and the kick-off of summer, and all indications now point to a busy Independence Day to follow.”
Airline worker shortage, cruise control
Another headache for the travel industry is the worker shortage that has hit top airlines, which laid off thousands of workers during the pandemic when shelter-in-place order brought domestic and international flights to a halt. Among many things, most airlines have cut routes and trips this summer and offered pilots and flight attendants double overtime to work longer hours during the Fourth of July weekend.
Cruise ship operators such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Princess Cruises are all also restarting their summer schedules, albeit with some noted changes. In late June, after two unvaccinated travelers recently tested positive for COVID-19 on a Royal Caribbean cruise, the Ft. Lauderdale-based cruise ship giant announced it will now require unvaccinated guests over the age of 12 to provide proof of travel insurance for all Florida cruise departures between Aug. 1 and the end of the year.
Miami-based Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise company, announced plans last week to resume guest cruise operations on all its eight brands, including AIDA, Carnival Cruise, Costa, Cunard, and the Holland America lines.
“For all of our brands, our highest responsibility and top priorities are always compliance, environmental protection, and the health, safety and well-being of our guests, our shipboard and shoreside employees, and the communities we visit,” said Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell. “We are excited to see eight of our world-leading cruise line brands sailing this summer, and to date, we’ve announced over half of our capacity returning by the end of the fiscal year, as we work to meet significant pent-up demand for cruising and get back to what we do best – serving our guests with one of the world’s most popular vacations.”
Carnival said all brands are resuming operations using a gradual, phased-in approach, with sailings announced on 42 ships to date through the end of November, representing 52% of the company’s total capacity across its global fleet of 91 cruise ships. The initial cruises will take place with enhanced health protocols developed in conjunction with government and health authorities, and informed by guidance from Carnival’s public health, epidemiological and policy experts, company officials said.
For those who make the personal decision to take a cruise, AAA reminds them that a travel agent can offer advice on cancelling policies, onboard regulations, and travel insurance options to protect big ticket purchases before and during a vacation.
Arkansas traffic gridlock
In Arkansas, roads and highways across the state will remain congested as the state Department of Transportation (ArDOT) is urging drivers to “know before you go” and visit IDriveArkansas.com before traveling during this Independence Day. ArDOT officials said extensive highway improvements continue throughout the state, including several work zones. To aid in your holiday travel, ARDOT said it has been working hard to open as many lanes as possible.
“Still, travelers will likely face work zones and possible delays due to increased traffic volume,” said state highway officials in a June 29 memo, noting AAA’s busy travel forecast. “The largest obstacle travelers may encounter going east is that the I-40 Mississippi River Bridge between West Memphis and Memphis is closed for repairs.”
Arkansas and Tennessee highway officials are continuing to repair the I-40 bridge that has shut down one of the nation’s busiest transportation corridors since early May after a drone inspection found evidence of structural damage to the busy river span. Highway officials, who have not set a date yet for the bridge reopening, said Wednesday that all materials for Phase 2 Repairs are onsite and installation continues as a team of structural engineers continues analysis of the preliminary weld testing results.
Closer to home, all I-30 lanes in Little Rock between 6th Street and the Interstate 630 interchange will be closed the weekend of July 9. Weather permitting, crews plan to close the interstate in downtown Little Rock and move traffic onto frontage roads starting on Friday night, July 9, and continuing through July 12.
These operations are part of a maintenance of traffic plan to demolish the 9th Street bridge and then reconstruct it, ArDOT officials said. “Drivers should exercise caution when approaching and traveling through all highway work zones.”
Here are other key work zones that Arkansas and out-of-state motorists should take note of across the state:
- If driving to northeast Arkansas, motorists may experience delays through the Interstate 40 work zone near West Memphis and the Interstate 555 work zone near Jonesboro.
- Travelers going through southwest Arkansas will encounter construction zones on Highway 82 in
- El Dorado & Magnolia and Highway 167 near Fordyce.
- Central Arkansas motorists may drive through work zones if traveling on Highway 67 between Beebe and Searcy.
- Highway 425 in Crossett will have 24-hour lane width restriction in southeast Arkansas.
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