What to know about Labor Day travel: delays, deals and weather

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Millions of Americans are expected to pack highways and airports this week for Labor Day weekend, capping off a chaotic summer for travel.

Bookings for domestic travel — including flights cars, cruises, hotels and tours — are up 22 percent over Labor Day weekend in 2021, according to AAA spokesperson Ellen Edmonds. International bookings are up 104 percent as coronavirus restrictions continue to ease. Travel-booking app Hopper expects more than 12.7 million people to fly from US airports between Thursday and Monday, including 1.8 million going abroad.

With airlines still plagued by staffing issues and extreme weather, travel experts said the most important move is to build flexibility into your plans. And for last-minute vacations, there are still deals to be found.

Airline lab problems aren’t going away

Here’s what to know if you’re traveling or hoping to get away this Labor Day weekend.

Prepare for delays in Atlanta, Denver and LA

An average of 2.6 million passengers are expected to depart from US airports each day of Labor Day weekend, with peak air travel occurring on Friday, according to Hopper’s forecast.

“We’re just seeing extremely high levels of demand,” said Andrew Heritage, an economist at Hopper. “But also, demand has come back faster than capacity has — airlines have brought capacity about to 95 percent of what they were pre-pandemic, but they’re not quite back to pre-pandemic levels.”

The company predicts the busiest airports will be Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles, and warns passengers moving through those hubs to be prepared for delays. The worst airports for flight disruptions are expected to be Chicago-Midway, Baltimore and Dallas’s Love Field — in all three airports, more than a third of flights in August were delayed, according to Hopper.

Get to the airport early to be as “adaptable” as possible this weekend, Heritage said. For those who haven’t bought a ticket yet, he recommends flying on Saturday or Sunday, and using tools like Hopper’s Flight Disruption Guarantee, which allows for instant free rebooking in case of a flight disruption.

While TSA data shows the number of people passing through security checkpoints has fallen since June and July, the agency expects an uptick over Labor Day weekend, according to spokesperson Lisa Farbstein.

“We continue to be fully staffed to handle travel volume,” Farbstein said in an email. “But make no mistake, it will be busy at airports nationwide for holiday travel.”

How can bad weather ruin your flight? Let us count the ways.

Edmonds said AAA expects a rush of travelers on Thursday and Friday, and recommended leaving early in the morning for both road trips and flights.

Gas remains significantly more expensive than a year ago, but nationwide average prices have fallen more than a dollar since June, according to AAA. The national average hovered around $3.85 per gallon this week. It’s cheapest to refill your tank in the Southeast, especially Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia.

How much gas money it takes to drive across America

Rental cars are also seeing a dip, with fall prices expected to be 21 percent cheaper domestically and 31 percent cheaper internationally compared to summer, according to Matt Clarke, vice president of marketing at Kayak North America.

Hot and dry, except the South

Temperatures are expected to be above average for most of the country — except for Texas — over Labor Day weekend, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. The chance of precipitation is higher than normal in Southern California and the South, especially Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, while northern states are less likely than usual to see rain.

Hurricane season on the East Coast has been historically quiet thus far, but there is a chance that could change over Labor Day weekend, according to AccuWeather. Meteorologists are monitoring several systems, one of which has a small chance of threatening the Gulf Coast over the weekend, AccuWeather reported, which could disrupt travel and gas supplies.

Coronavirus cases in the US have gradually fallen in August, but vaccine immunity is wearing off and the virus is evolving to become more transmissible, so testing and masking remain important for travel.

You should still test for travel, health experts say

Masking is not required on public transit or planes, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends continuing to do so. If you test positive, you should avoid traveling until you exit isolation, according to the CDC. If you have cleared isolation but it has been less than 10 days since you tested positive, or if you have been exposed to someone with covid, you’re still recommended to wear a high-quality mask or travel in a private vehicle.

And even though the US no longer requires a negative test result to enter the country, now noncitizens must show proof of vaccination. The CDC offers a tool on its website to determine the requirements for people entering the US, and Kayak maintains a database of travel restrictions in foreign countries.

The federal government program that provides free at-home coronavirus tests will be suspended on Friday due to a lack of funding, according to its website. Tests are still available for reimbursement through insurance companies or at public testing sites.

Even if you haven’t booked a trip yet, there may still be deals out there, Heritage said. Plane tickets to Atlanta and Orlando remain below $250 round-trip, and if you are willing to drive, hotels in Kissimmee, Fla., and Tempe, Ariz., have affordable rates, according to Heritage.

You could also consider a “staycation,” as some hotels offer special last-minute rates to local guests based on geolocation, according to Hopper. Major cities like New York and Las Vegas may also have deals on hotel rooms close to the check-in date.

The cheapest domestic destinations according to Kayak are Myrtle Beach, SC, Las Vegas and Orlando, Clarke said. Internationally, Montreal, Toronto and Guadalajara, Mexico, are good places to look for last-minute deals.

A hater’s guide to Las Vegas

Overall, travel prices have eased slightly since the peak of a historically expensive summer season, but you’ll still have sticker shock compared to last year and before the pandemic. Average domestic airfare this Labor Day weekend is $278, 23 percent higher than 2021 and 20 percent higher than pre-pandemic in 2019, Heritage said.

“If people are looking, if they haven’t made plans yet and they want to take a flight, maybe leaving on Saturday or Sunday and if they can, coming back on Tuesday or Wednesday, would avoid the crowds but also probably save some money as well,” Heritage said.

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