Memorial Day travel set to top ’22

Over 26,000 forecast to fly out of LR as traffic nears pre-pandemic levels

Vince Oliver (from left) looks for his bags with his family, daughters Tianna and Makenna and wife Lisa, in the baggage claim area of Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport on Thursday in Little Rock.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Vince Oliver (from left) looks for his bags with his family, daughters Tianna and Makenna and wife Lisa, in the baggage claim area of Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport on Thursday in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Americans will take to the roads, rails and skies for the annual Memorial Day weekend, with millions expected to travel during the unofficial start to the summer travel season.

AAA announced that it expects 42.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home over the long weekend -- 2.7 million more than 2022, but still slightly below pre-pandemic travel numbers.

In a news release, Senior Vice President of AAA Travel Paula Twidale said that this Memorial Day weekend is expected to be the third busiest since 2000.

"More Americans are planning trips and booking them earlier, despite inflation. This summer travel season could be one for the record books, especially at airports," Twidale said.

AAA predicts 3.4 million people will fly over the Memorial Day weekend nationwide, even as travelers are paying 40% more in airfare for flights to popular vacation spots.

"AAA has found despite higher travel costs, travelers are willing to pay more and take more extensive trips largely due to the feeling of making up for lost time when travel was largely halted during the pandemic," AAA spokesperson Nick Chabarria wrote in an email. "AAA Travel has seen a steady recovery in travel bookings since mid-2021 and this Memorial Day Forecast shows travel numbers are very near (and surpassing, in the case of Air Travel) 2019 levels."

Of the millions of fliers, 26,199 people are expected to fly out of Little Rock's Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field during the seven-day period that started Thursday and runs through Wednesday -- slightly fewer than last year, when 27,061 people flew out in the same span.

Thursday was expected to be the busiest, according to a news release from the airport, with 4,484 passengers expected to fly that day.

"Passengers are advised to arrive at the airport two hours before departure time," wrote Shane Carter, Clinton National Airport's director of public affairs and government relations. "We continue to have passengers show up 15 to 30 minutes before their departure time, which is a guaranteed way to miss a flight."

Olivia Moore, the public information officer for Northwest Arkansas National Airport in Highfill, echoed Carter's recommendations, saying passengers arriving at XNA should give themselves two hours before their departure time to navigate to the drop-off area, which she said is currently affected by the airport's ongoing terminal modernization efforts, and ticket and security lines.

"We have a terminal modernization project that's in full swing, so the front of the building is going to be a little bit busier and a little bit difficult to navigate, especially for passenger pick up and drop off," Moore said.

Moore said passengers can pay for reserved parking in advance to speed up the waiting times and can check security checkpoint wait times on the airport's website.

This year has been record-setting for XNA, Moore said, with enplanements in the first quarter of 2023 exceeding that of the first quarter of 2019, its busiest year, by 10.7%. The airport had its busiest March and April ever, with spring break travel being a large contributor.

"We do know that AAA is predicting that Memorial Day weekend will be the busiest at airports since 2005," Moore said. "We're expecting that it's going to be extremely busy."

The Transportation Security Administration said in a news release that it is "prepared" to handle the large summer travel crowds, adding that it predicts today will be the busiest travel day of the long weekend for air travel nationally.

Last summer saw airlines and airports get overwhelmed by pent-up travel demand after years of pandemic-related slowdowns, leading to long lines, lost bags and frustrated passengers.

The TSA also announced that 13- to 17-year-olds can now accompany parents or guardians enrolled in its TSA PreCheck program through PreCheck security queues, provided they are on the same reservation and the TSA PreCheck indicator is present on the teen's boarding pass.

The policy for children under 12, which allows them to accompany their enrolled parent or guardian through TSA PreCheck lines without restrictions, is unchanged.

Less chaos at airports won't be the only improvement to the Memorial Day travel experience in Arkansas this year. According to data from AAA, the average gas price in Arkansas as of Thursday was $3.13 per gallon -- 99 cents less per gallon compared to this time last year, and 44 cents less than the current national average.

However, Chabarria said demand due to holiday travel will likely cause gas prices to fluctuate.

"With 37.1 million Americans expected to take a road trip this weekend, roadways and gas stations will be busy," Chabarria said. "Drivers are paying nearly a dollar less per gallon than last year when fuel prices were on their way to record setting levels."

Drivers in Fayetteville are paying the most, with the average cost per gallon at $3.23. Jonesboro has the lowest prices, with the average cost for a gallon of gas being $2.99. Those in popular tourist destination Hot Springs are paying $3.12 per gallon on average, while Little Rock is currently paying $3.07 per gallon on average.

Arkansas currently has the second lowest average gas price in the country, with only Mississippi being cheaper.

AAA said data from INRIX, which provides transportation data and insights, predicts that today will be the busiest on the roads, with the worst time to travel falling between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., while the best times to travel fall before noon. Saturday and Sunday are expected to have the least traffic impact.

Arkansas Department of Transportation spokesperson Dave Parker said drivers in Arkansas likely won't encounter any major road or lane closures during the long weekend, with major road projects halting work Friday evening and resuming on Tuesday following the holiday travel rush.

"We try to keep things clear for the driving public," Parker said.

AAA data for the West South Central region, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, predicts that 3.88 million people will travel by car during the Memorial Day travel period. This is 5% more than 2022, but still 3% less than 2019 levels.

There is also a predicted uptick in travel via methods other than driving or flying, such as by bus, train or cruise. The number of people traveling by those methods for the long weekend is up 21% this year, both nationally and in the West South Central region.

Destinations within Arkansas are also proving popular, with state parks expected to be busy.

"With an excellent weather forecast, we are anticipating another great Memorial Day weekend at Arkansas State Parks," said Shealyn Sowers, the chief of communications for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. "Most of the lodges at Arkansas State Parks are sold out. With last minute reservations we expect lodge, cabin and camping reservations to exceed 2022 numbers."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages many of the lakes in Arkansas, asked visitors to follow safety tips, such as wearing life jackets and not swimming alone, in a news release.

"Memorial Day is one of the busiest weekends on the water across the region," said Corps of Engineers Little Rock District Commander Col. Damon Knarr. "We're asking visitors to be patient and courteous at boat launch ramps and to slow down and watch out for other boaters on the water."

  photo  Travelers wait in line to check in at the Delta ticket counter at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)