The last time the country celebrated a long holiday weekend, the mood was lighter. Travel boomed, and the delta variant had not yet caused a surge that sparked new mask requirements, restrictions and unease.
Experts believe travelers will be out and about during Labor Day weekend, but the concerns are different from what they were in early July. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week said unvaccinated people should not travel during the holiday.
Still, there is one piece of good news: The airline delays and cancellations that plagued air travel earlier this summer appear to have been resolved, even amid nasty tropical weather.
“This summer was an outlier for operations,” said Mike Arnot, a spokesperson for airline data company Cirium.
Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, said that while carriers have trimmed their schedules for the fall, travelers should not expect a repeat of this summer’s earlier messes.
“I would not be terribly worried in terms of Labor Day because the main sort of disruptions we saw earlier in the summer were largely because demand for travel had exceeded the supply that the airline was able to put forward,” he said.
Here’s what else Labor Day travelers should keep in mind.
– Travel numbers have dipped, but expect crowds at the airport
On Tuesday, the Transportation Security Administration screened a little more than 1.3 million passengers – the lowest number since May 11. But don’t let that fool you into expecting empty airports.
“Although there have been some recent days with reduced passenger volume, we still expect this weekend to be a busy one at many of the nation’s airports,” TSA spokeswoman Jessica Mayle said in an email. “We’d encourage travelers to get to the airport with plenty of time and pay attention to any guidance they receive from their airlines ahead of their departure.”
Flight booking app Hopper said in a Labor Day travel outlook that it expects Thursday to be the busiest day for travelers to head out, with Wednesday the busiest day to return. Experts have said they expect people to make more than just a weekend out of the holiday, extending their trips thanks to more flexible policies about remote work.
The busiest airports, according to Hopper, are expected to be Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare and Los Angeles.
– Prepare for busy roads
Arrivalist, a location data company, predicts that road trip volume will be about 1% lower than last year’s because of the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. But the company expects 42.9 million people to head out on the road during the holiday stretch.
Founder and CEO Cree Lawson said that because of the threat of the delta variant, he expects more people to get together with friends and relatives and fewer to be eager to get into crowded spaces with strangers.
“The protection of the private car and being amongst relatives who you know are either vaccinated or not will probably provide the assurance that Labor Day travelers are looking for,” he said.
While AAA did not forecast Labor Day weekend travel numbers, the advocacy group expects Thursday and Friday afternoons to be busy with a mix of commuter traffic and holiday travel.
“This summer has been a very robust one for travel, especially by car, and we do not expect that to change very much,” AAA spokeswoman Julie Hall said in an email. “Motorists should travel during off-peak times or leave early, giving themselves plenty of time to get to their destination safely.”
– Look for gas prices to tick higher
Though the cost of fuel has been roughly the same as it was just after the Fourth of July holiday weekend, experts warn that prices could increase because of the impact of Hurricane Ida.
According to data compiled by the fuel tracking site GasBuddy, the average price of a gallon of gas was $3.12, as of Monday. That’s about the same as early July, but $1.01 a gallon higher than last year at this time.
But the company said prices will probably start to increase at the end of the week after refineries shut down in preparation for the Category 4 storm that hit Louisiana on Sunday.
“While the national average price of gasoline declined yet again over the last week, Hurricane Ida has been causing countless disruptions to critical infrastructure, including oil production, refineries and pipelines,” GasBuddy’s head of petroleum analysis, Patrick De Haan, said in a blog post. “We’re likely to see a reversal this week, but motorists need not be too concerned at this point.”
He said he expected the national average to rise between 5 and 15 cents per gallon over the next couple of weeks.
– Keep a mask – and vaccine card – handy
The federal mask mandate, which had an earlier expiration date of Sept. 13, was extended until Jan. 18. Either way, travelers by air and other forms of mass transportation would have needed to keep their faces covered over the holiday weekend.
But unlike the Memorial Day and July 4 holidays, the CDC now recommends even fully vaccinated travelers wear a mask indoors in public places. And many destinations have reinstated indoor mask mandates in response.
Beyond mask requirements, proof of vaccination is becoming the key to dining indoors, seeing shows, going to sporting events and taking part in other activities in cities around the world.
– Scope out your destination and consider the risk
With the delta surge of cases, health experts say some people just shouldn’t be traveling now – or should change the way they travel. Those at high risk of severe illness from a breakthrough infection, even if vaccinated, need to be extra cautious, as do families with children.
For international travel, the CDC regularly updates its health notices for destinations around the world. Domestically, the agency details the level of community transmission in counties across the United States.
And AAA publishes a map of covid-19 travel restrictions so travelers can prepare for any requirements in the destination they’re visiting.
“Road trips can offer more flexibility than other modes of travel, but it’s still important to plan for travel by car,” Hall said in an email. “Understand the impact COVID-19 has on cities and states you are traveling through and any restrictions in place.”