The largest number of Americans in more than a decade are expected to hit the road this weekend for summer’s first major travel holiday.
Don Redman, a public affairs specialist for American Automobile Association, said more than 38 million people are expected to travel at least 50 miles away from home this weekend. That’s the second-highest volume on record after 2005, when 44 million people traveled for Memorial Day.
The Memorial Day travel period began Thursday and ends Monday.
Redman said 34 million people — or 89 percent of travelers — are expected to travel by car, thanks in part to a drop in gas prices compared to last year. Approximately 2.6 million people will travel by air, and 1.6 million will travel by other means, such as cruises or trains.
More than 2 million people are expected to travel in the AAA East South Central region, which includes Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Redman said the Memorial Day weekend should offer a glimpse of how the summer travel season will play out.
“A lot of the travel trends set by Memorial Day kind of carry over,” Redman said. “It’s a good bellwether holiday for the summer season.”
Gas prices are starting their summer climb, but are generally expected to remain less expensive than last year.
Redman said the statewide average is about $2.06 for a gallon of gas. This time last year, gas cost $2.44 per gallon.
“These are some of the lowest prices we’ve seen since 2005,” Redman said. “We always caution against comparing gas prices to how people travel, but this year and last year combined there’s no denying it’s helped the family immensely. Just this year so far, $18 billion in gas money has been saved.”
Redman said gas prices should, overall, stay lower this year if they follow the same trend as in 2015. Last year, Mississippi’s average gas price for January was $1.95 per gallon and rose to about $2.40 in the summer. In January this year, gas started at $1.70 per gallon.
“The expectation is that we won’t see prices in the $2.40 to $2.50 range this year,” he said. “We’re expecting more in the range of $2.20 to $2.25.”
Redman said higher gas prices in the summer are typical. He said the increase comes as refineries switch to summer-grade gasoline, which is more expensive to refine and thus has more built-in costs. The increase also comes from higher demand as more Americans travel for summer vacations.
Redman said collapsing oil prices have been the main factor behind cheaper gasoline. He said oil prices got as low as $28-30 per barrel, but have since stabilized and have hovered around $48 per barrel for the last two or three weeks.
He said prices should stay relatively low for the rest of the year. However, the low price of oil last year and earlier this year hurt American oil production, and that could lead to higher prices next year.
“A lot of drilling operations have been suspended,” he said. “For this year, we should be in good shape. Next year, things could be different. We should enjoy these prices this year while we can.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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