As Memorial Day officially launches summer after a long and sometimes soul-sapping winter, Minnesotans this weekend are expected to take to the skies and roadways in droves.
Be forewarned: It will be crowded at airports and highway rest stops, as travel levels snap back to normal following the precipitous declines seen since 2020, driven by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Some 42 million Americans are expected to travel at least 50 miles from home over the Memorial Day weekend, a 7% increase over last year, according to AAA. If predictions hold, it will be the third-busiest Memorial Day travel weekend since 2000.
"With record amounts of humans hitting the skies, expect long lines at many airports nationwide, from bag drop queues to airport security stations to airport lounges and even Starbucks in the terminal," said Kyle Potter, executive editor of the Thrifty Traveler website. "And expect most planes to be fairly full, too."
Some 3.4 million Americans are expected to fly over the holiday weekend, an 11% surge over last year that could surpass pre-pandemic levels, AAA says. Thursday and Friday were expected to be the busiest days of the weekend at MSP.
This comes despite higher ticket prices, unpredictable weather, a shortage of air traffic controllers, and labor disputes between airlines and unions at some big carriers that could cause disruption.
While gas prices have inched up over the past week, holiday drivers will pay about 70 to 90 cents less per gallon than they did last Memorial Day, when the national average hit a record high of $4.60 a gallon.
Katie Henly is headed to Chicago with her husband and two kids, both under the age of 4, for the holiday weekend. With steep airfares cost-prohibitive, the south Minneapolis family decided to make the seven-hour trip by car.
"We wanted to go somewhere that we could reasonably drive to and have fun," she said about choosing the Windy City. After wearing out Twin Cities' attractions and parks, Chicago's museums and playgrounds offered just the ticket, she said.
Minnesota drivers this year can expect to pay between $3.50 and $3.60 per gallon, a sharp decline from last year when the statewide average was about $4.12, said Patrick De Haan with Gasbuddy.com, a gas price tracking website.
"That is one piece of good news," he said.
De Haan attributed the lower gas prices to three factors: refineries operating at full capacity, falling demand, and uncertainty about the economy as Congress continues to debate raising the nation's debt ceiling.
Barring a natural disaster or economic upheaval, gas prices could be more favorable by the time July 4th and Labor Day roll around. "We have fingers crossed about sub-$3 prices by the closing innings of summer," De Haan said.
At the airport
With Southwest Airlines' well-publicized meltdown last year, many travelers may be skittish heading into the summer season, Potter said. But he said there haven't been "the same slew of disruptions heading into this summer" as there were last year.
Airlines have hired more personnel. And some, including Delta, he said, "have proactively cut some flights from their schedules this summer to free up a bit of wiggle room to make sure they can keep things running smoothly."
Still, Potter warned, conditions are ripe for delays and cancellations.
"After cutting back to the bone in 2020, airlines haven't been able to scale back quick enough to handle all this travel demand," he said.
At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, airlines will operate 224 routes this summer. That's 11 routes more than were flown pre-COVID in 2019, according to the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC).
Airlines at MSP are flying larger aircraft on many of their routes, boosting seating capacity on those flights by 15% compared with 2022, MAC said in a news release. WestJet, Canada's second-largest airline, will begin nonstop service this summer from MSP to Edmonton and Saskatoon.
Officials said the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is ready to screen "high volumes" of passengers across the United States through Labor Day. TSA Administrator David Pekoske said this week that staffing levels are better than in the past, partly because employees will be getting a pay raise on July 1.
Delta Air Lines, MSP's dominant carrier, expects to fly nearly 2.8 million customers over the five-day Memorial Day holiday, a 17% boost over 2022 that exceeds pre-pandemic levels in 2019. At MSP, Delta will operate more than 330 peak day flights to 120 destinations, with seats about 90% restored to 2019 levels.
Sun Country Airlines spokesperson Wendy Burt said the Minneapolis-based carrier, which is No. 2 in the local market, expects to carry close to 47,000 passengers from Friday to Monday, with the latter being the busiest day. That's about 22% more than last year.
Peak days at MSP for Sun Country customers this summer will be Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays, with an average of 50 to 60 flights a day. July is expected to be the airline's busiest month.
With an eye toward easing congestion in the Terminal 2 lobby, Sun Country will offer curbside check-in service beginning June 1 for passengers taking domestic flights. Three curbside stations outside Terminal 2 will be staffed from 5 to 8 a.m. and noon to 3 p.m., Thursdays through Mondays, until Sept. 1.
On the road
Traffic will be heavy Friday on arteries leading out of the Twin Cities, with 5 p.m. being the worst time to leave. A trip to Fargo via Interstate 94 could take close to four hours, or 16% longer than normal, according to the traffic analytics company INRIX.
It will also be slow going on Hwy. 169 for motorists headed to Brainerd and on northbound Interstate 35, INRIX predicts. On Hwy. 169 and I-35, congestion is expected to be heaviest from 1 to 2 p.m. Monday.
Road work on Hwy. 10 in Anoka and along I-94 in the east metro could lead to backups, and traffic could be tough in Duluth where a number of construction projects on I-35 and Hwy. 53 are underway. But construction shouldn't adversely affect drivers overall, said Anne Meyer, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "We open lanes when we can," she said.
The State Patrol and its law enforcement partners will be strictly enforcing traffic laws. Officials said they hope to make the stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when most fatal crashes typically occur, "the 100 safest days of summer."
One of the more-inspired road trips will be taken by St. Paul resident Zack Mensinger, who is biking 150 miles to Duluth. "The trees are blooming, the smells are amazing, and you see a lot of wildlife," he said Wednesday. "It forces you to take time to slow down."
Kjersti Vick, a spokesperson for Visit Cook County, expects a busy holiday weekend and summer along the North Shore and in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, though not as frenzied as during the pandemic. Memorial Day kicks it all off, she said.
"We're always a few weeks behind the Twin Cities, so the trees are in the bright-green stage now," she said. "It's beautiful."