Memorial Day travel won’t match 2019 levels, but it’s ‘on the rebound’

By: - May 28, 2021 10:18 am

More Americans are packing their bags for Memorial Day travel compared to last year, but not yet up to to 2019 levels. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

More Americans are packing their bags for Memorial Day weekend than they did last year, but pre-pandemic summer travel hasn’t returned just yet.

Both air and land travel remain depressed below pre-pandemic levels nationally, but show sharp upticks as vaccination efforts continue and updated Centers for Disease Control guidance allows vaccinated people to travel without quarantining or getting tested. (The CDC still recommends everyone wear masks when travelling by bus, planes, trains or any public transportation).

Automotive services company AAA predicts 37 million people will travel over Memorial Day weekend. That would be an increase of 60% from the same weekend in 2020. 

AAA Travel Senior Vice President Paula Twidale said in a news release that there was a “strong desire” to travel for the holiday this year.

“This pent-up demand will result in a significant increase in Memorial Day travel, which is a strong indicator for summer, though we must all remember to continue taking important safety precautions,” Twidale said.

However, AAA predicts that there will be 6 million fewer travelers over the holiday weekend compared to 2019. That’s a decrease of 13%.

The Iowa Tourism Office recorded similar rates of people traveling to the state this month. Travelers to Iowa were up 63.3% in May compared to May 2020, but tourism remains 11% below the same time period in 2019.

“Travel is definitely on the rebound,” spokesperson Kanan Kappelman said.

Vast majority of travelers likely to drive, gas prices remain elevated

The Iowa Tourism Office declared 2021 the “Year of the Road Trip,” encouraging Iowans and nearby visitors to explore within the state. On Thursday, the Tourism Office and the Department of Natural Resources announced new prizes for the Iowa State Park Passport program, including free t-shirts, outdoor gear and Fitbit fitness trackers.

AAA anticipates 34 million Americans will travel by car for Memorial Day trips, compared to just 2.5 million flying.

But road-trippers, be they headed to a state park or other festivities, are likely to see elevated gas prices all summer, according to gas price tracking app GasBuddy. Petroleum analyst Patrick De Haan attributed the high prices partially to a sharp increase in demand. Oil producers, he said, are still working to increase production and catch up.

“The national average is expected to be $2.98 on Memorial Day, and likely to stay in the upper $2 per gallon range or even low $3 per gallon range as we approach midsummer, should gasoline demand rise to near-record levels,” De Haan said in a GasBuddy Q&A.

As of Thursday afternoon, the average price of gas in Iowa was $2.89 and $3.04 nationally.

Airline traffic far exceeds expectations in Des Moines and nationally

At Des Moines International Airport, passenger traffic in April was still significantly below pre-pandemic levels. In April 2019, 241,156 passengers enplaned or deplaned at the airport, compared to just 141,067 in 2021. 

But April 2021 still saw a 1210% increase from April 2020, when just 10,767 passengers passed through the airport in the whole month.

Airport spokesperson Kayla Kovarna said the passenger numbers showed an uptick in May, matching about 75% of the rate of travelers in May 2019. Current travel numbers at Des Moines International have exceeded projections that airport staff did not anticipate meeting until December.

Kovarna did not have a prediction for how many passengers would pass through Des Moines International over Memorial Day, but she anticipated it would be “a strong weekend.”

AAA predicts that, nationally, 2.5 million people will board a flight this weekend. That’s 750,000 fewer air travelers than the same weekend in 2019, but still nearly six times the number of people flying for Memorial Day in 2020.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.