Labor Day: The best time to hit the road and beat airport crowds

Labor Day: The best time to hit the road and beat airport crowds

Labor Day weekend is just about here, marking the unofficial close to the scorching hot summer months. It’s the last holiday travel weekend of the season, but just as popular.

AAA said domestic bookings are up 4 percent and international bookings are up 44 percent since last year, according to aggregated booking data for flights, hotels, rental cars and cruises. Booking platform Hopper estimates more than 20 million people will depart from U.S. airports this weekend, which is a roughly 14 percent increase from this time last year.

In a summer of extreme weather and crowds, travel experts said it’s important to build flexibility into your plans. And good news for last-minute planners: There are still deals to be found.

Here are five things to keep in mind for your travel plans over the holiday weekend.

It’s an ideal time for procrastinators

Travelers often face costly flight and accommodations costs when faced with last-minute travel, but experts suggest this weekend might be a good time to purchase travel on a tighter timeline.

Labor Day is typically seen as the least expensive of the three summer holiday weekends, and this year has seen significant cheaper travel than in previous ones, said Hopper economist Hayley Berg. A recent report from the travel booking site said airfare prices are down 11 percent from last year and 20 percent down from Labor Day weekend 2019.

The average price for a flight is $226 per ticket. Rental cars are also down 14.5 percent from this time last year, and average $41 on a daily basis.

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Part of the reason that is, Berg says, is due to an increased supply on flight and car rentals this summer compared to last year. This is coupled with other factors that are usually seen around August and September, including prices coming down for peak season, students returning to school and adults returning to more rigid in-person work schedules.

“September really marks the beginning of a low demand period for travel,” Berg said. “We typically see prices drop anywhere from 20 to 30 percent, from peak summer prices to the prices that will be for the next couple of weeks.”

Berg said the start of a low-demand, high-supply travel season is ideal for those looking for last-minute deals, since there will likely be more occupancy available on flights and hotels.

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Expect crowds at airports and popular destinations

Like much of the summer, travelers can expect airports and popular destinations to be crowded.

The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen more than 14 million passengers for Labor Day weekend, with Friday as the busiest day with around 2.7 million travelers.

TSA Administrator David P. Pekoske said in an email that passenger volume is 11 percent higher than last year, and has already exceeded Labor Day weekend numbers from four years ago. It’s reflective of one of the busiest travel periods, the agency said, with roughly 227.5 million passengers making their way through security checkpoints since Memorial Day weekend.

It will be a crowded weekend for popular domestic destinations, such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Following year-round trends, warmer locations should expect more tourist traffic, Berg said.

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Las Vegas is usually the most popular domestic destination throughout the year, Hopper said, and next weekend is no exception. Travel to the area is often more inexpensive and one of the most accessible locations in the western United States, and offers close access point to the Grand Canyon, which is about 130 miles near to the park’s West Rim in Arizona.

Other popular destinations include New York, Orlando and Seattle. Tourism for the Emerald City has also been boosted by a strong demand for Alaska cruises, similar to cruise ports in Florida, according to AAA data.

To avoid crowds, Pekoske recommends arriving two hours before your scheduled flight, educating yourself on TSA liquid and security policies to avoid tedious bag checks or even calling your airline beforehand to ensure you are prepared to take a flight, especially if you are bringing strollers, pets or extra equipment.

Consider travel insurance and a backup plan

Flying in the summer can be a gamble, especially during hurricane season and bad storms, when your flight is at risk for being canceled or delayed.

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Berg said increases in disruptions is part of the reason more travelers are purchasing travel insurance, especially with longer trips or ones involving international destinations post-pandemic. It’s also cost-effective if you can’t afford to cancel or rebook your own trip.

Passengers can purchase travel insurance to cover weather-related issues, lost baggage and cancellations; check with your credit card company on what they cover. If you want more coverage, like if you get covid and have to postpone your trip, make sure your policy is a “cancel for any reason” policy.

Berg said unpredictable weather this summer, such as the wildfires in Maui and heavy rain seen across several regions throughout the United States, can make travel challenging. Those traveling abroad this summer have also likely faced inclement weather patterns, including back-to-back heat waves throughout the Mediterranean coast.

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“There’s still a lot of anxiety from travelers about unexpected disruptions, how they will pay when they need an unexpected accommodation or need to book a new flight to get home on time or head back to work or school — whatever it is,” she said. “There is certainly still some anxiety about disruption lingering out there.”

It’s also important to build a disaster plan as extreme weather becomes a more common travel disrupter. Be prepared for evacuations, keep an eye on forecasts and pack extra essentials, such as medications, in case you get stuck.

Mornings and evenings are the best times to hit the road

Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX, estimated in a recent AAA report that the best times to drive are early in the morning or in the evening throughout the weekend.

The AAA report estimates between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday to be the busiest time on roads over the course of the weekend. Friday is expected to have the highest traffic between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m.

There will also be increased congestion across several popular cities, such as travel into Atlanta on the Interstate 20 East and Chicago via Interstate 94 East, both of which should expect more traffic leading into the weekend itself.

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The national average for a regular gallon of gas on Labor Day last year was $3.78, and although drivers taking road trips this weekend can likely see similar prices, prices have generally spiked in the last few months.

Last month, gas prices surged due to less supply and high oil costs. These costs decreased in August, but hurricane season’s peak in September brings concerns of potentially higher gas prices leading into the weekend.

Be prepared for delays and cancellations

Since it’s hard to predict whether your Labor Day flight could be delayed or canceled, Hopper recommends giving yourself as much wiggle room as possible to travel.

Flight cancellations were below 2 percent for the first four months of 2023, according to a Transportation Department report in June, lower than the 2.7 percent cancellation rate in 2022. Airlines reported being on time for more than 75 percent of their domestic flights.

Earlier this year, the agency also reported that nearly one-third of travel customer complaints were due to cancellations and delays, with the majority of flights involving Southwest Airlines.

If you need to make it to your destination for an event, the travel booking site recommends planning a buffer day in between to factor in any possible itinerary changes. Berg also recommends flying in the morning, because most disruptions happen in the afternoon and evening times.

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On the day of your flights, Berg also recommends checking any potential alternative flights in case yours is disrupted, educating yourself on what your airline owes you if you are canceled or delayed, and signing up for mobile or email alerts.

Travel experts recommend Labor Day weekend as an ideal time to squeeze in any bucket-list ideas on places to vacation or visit, due to overall lower costs in September and October.