Millions of Americans will hit the road and the air for Memorial Day weekend.
It's the unofficial start of summer and one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.
AAA predicts 39.2 million people -- more than one in 10 Americans -- will travel 50 miles or more from home this Memorial Day weekend.
That's an increase of 8.3% over the same holiday weekend last year. This year's number is still 8% below the pre-pandemic level in 2019, but it's close to the 2017 level. AAA defines the Memorial Day travel period as Thursday through Monday.
Air travel is expected to be up 25% over last year -- the second-largest increase since 2010, according to AAA. An estimated 3.01 million Americans will fly this weekend. That's 6% below the pre-pandemic level in 2019.
Shane Carter, a spokesman for Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field in Little Rock, said travelers need to get to the airport two hours before their flights are scheduled to take off. Otherwise, they might miss their flights.
Carter said the busiest time at the airport is often between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., and it can take over 30 minutes just to go through the Transportation Security Administration's checkpoints at that time of day because of the lines. He said TSA checkpoints open at 3:45 a.m., and airline ticket counters usually open a little before that time.
"We ask for passengers to please do themselves a favor and get to the airport early, particularly in the mornings when we have a lot of passengers flying out over a short period of time," said Carter. "Passengers will likely encounter waits at the ticket counter and at a busy security checkpoint. Both of those processes take time and we ask that you please allow for them."
People who haven't flown in a while may not realize that arriving two hours before a domestic flight is now the norm, Carter said. Airlines recommend people get to the airport three hours before international flights.
"We have primarily leisure travelers and a lot of those travelers we have not seen since before the pandemic," said Carter.
Friday is expected to be the busiest travel day at the Little Rock airport this holiday weekend. A total of 4,486 passengers are anticipated to fly out of the airport on Friday, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
A total of 27,581 passengers are expected to depart the state's largest airport during the seven day period that runs from May 25 until May 31.
Travel volume at the Little Rock airport is currently at 89% of pre-pandemic levels and is expected to increase during the summer, according to Carter. Airlines are adding more flights from Little Rock for summer travel, which starts Memorial Day weekend and runs through Labor Day.
Carter said face masks are now optional for airline passengers.
Alex English, a spokesperson for the Northwest Arkansas National Airport in Highfill, said the number of passengers boarding planes at the airport was up 92% for the first four months of the year. She said the number of enplanements was up slightly less in April -- 63% -- than the other three months, possibly due to a nationwide shortage of pilots and increasing ticket prices because of increasing fuel costs.
"We are definitely trending upwards from 2021," she said.
English said they're expecting an increase in passengers for the Memorial Day weekend, with today and Friday being the busiest days for outbound flights, and people returning to XNA on Monday and Tuesday.
English said business travel is down from pre-pandemic levels, but it's still an important part of the airport's passenger load.
"Business travel we don't think will come back 100% because so many people are able to utilize Zoom," she said of a videoconferencing application that allows people to use computers to hold meetings remotely.
According to AAA, the most popular domestic destinations this holiday weekend are Orlando, Seattle, Miami, Las Vegas, Anaheim, Calif., New York City, Denver, Anchorage, Boston and Honolulu.
Automobile travel is projected to be up by 5% this weekend with 34.9 million Americans driving at least 50 miles from home -- despite high gas prices. The number of people traveling by car is still 7% below the 2019 level.
"Memorial Day is always a good predictor of what's to come for summer travel," said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. "Based on our projections, summer travel isn't just heating up, it will be on fire. People are overdue for a vacation and they are looking to catch up on some much-needed R&R in the coming months."
Air travel began to rally last Thanksgiving, according to AAA. The percentage of people people choosing air travel as their preferred mode of travel this holiday weekend was 7.7%, an increase over 7.5% in 2019.
For AAA's West South Central Region -- which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas -- 4.1 million people are expected to travel this weekend. That's an 8% increase over last year but still 9% below the 2019 level.
In the four-state region including Arkansas, 3.7 million people are expected to travel by automobile this weekend. That's a 4% increase from last year but still 8% below the 2019 level.
The average price for a gallon of regular gas in Arkansas is $4.12, according to AAA Arkansas Weekend Gas Watch.
While Arkansans are paying $1.36 more per gallon than they were at this time last year, Arkansas has the third-lowest average price for gasoline in the country, according to AAA. The only states with lower average gas prices on Wednesday morning were Oklahoma, where gas averaged $4.08 per gallon, and Kansas, where it averaged $4.09.
The national average is $4.60 per gallon. Drivers in California are paying the most at $6.07 on average for a gallon of regular unleaded.
Of the major metropolitan areas surveyed in Arkansas, drivers in Texarkana are paying the most on average at $4.34 while drivers in Fort Smith are paying the least at $4.04 per gallon, according to AAA. On Wednesday morning, the average price for a gallon of regular gas was $4.05 in Little Rock and $4.06 in Fayetteville.
Gas prices in Arkansas, and nationwide, continue their recording setting trend, hitting new milestones as Memorial Day Weekend approaches, according to Nick Chabarria, a public affairs specialist for AAA.
He said the Arkansas statewide gas price average reached $4.00 per gallon for the first time on May 12. Nationwide, the national gas price average rose above $4.50 per gallon for the first time on May 17.
The increase in gas prices is primarily driven by the high cost of crude oil and increased supply and demand pressures on other fuels like diesel and jet fuel, according to AAA.
"High demand for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel is putting upward pressure on oil prices which is causing prices to rise at the pump," said Chabarria. "Despite record high gas prices, AAA anticipates Memorial Day Weekend travel to be busy with 34.9 million Americans hitting the road – a 5% increase from last year."
Some 340,000 people in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas will fly this weekend, according to AAA. That's a 25% increase over last year but still 2% below the 2019 level.
Nationwide and in the four-state region, travel by other means (buses, trains and cruises) is expected to be up by about 200%, but still about 30% below 2019 levels. Travel by cruise ship was severely impacted during the height of the pandemic, which began early in 2020. An estimated 1.33 million Americans -- including 148,000 in the four-state region -- will travel by bus, train or cruise this holiday weekend, according to AAA.
Arkansas State Parks will be busy this weekend.
Monika Rued, public information officer for the Division of Arkansas State Parks, said many cabins and other lodging facilities are already booked for the weekend.
"There is availability at Ozark Folk Center State Park (they have the Craft Village where about 20 artisan shops, music on the outdoor stage, the Skillet Restaurant with Southern food, and Loco Ropes on site) and the Jailhouse B&B at Historic Washington State Park for Memorial Day weekend as of today," Rued said in an email on Wednesday afternoon. "People interested in other state parks may call the park directly and inquire about any possible openings but will not see those online."
Contact information for State Parks is available at https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parks.