How bad will Labor Day travel be?

Summer 2019 will end the way it began, with millions of Americans filling the interstates and airports, and the volume of all that Labor Day weekend travel is expected to be heavier than last year.

About 17.5 million passengers are projected to fly U.S. airlines from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3, according to the travel industry group Airlines for America. That’s almost a 4% increase over last year’s count of 16.9 million passengers.

On the roads, traffic probably won’t be as bad as the Memorial Day or July 4 weekends, said AAA Mid-Atlantic’s John Townsend II. But it will exceed their unofficial projection for the 2018 Labor Day weekend, which had 35 million Americans traveling at least 50 miles from home — including 800,000 D.C.-area residents. It will be fueled, in part, by the cost of gas, he said.

“Nothing spells a busy holiday travel period better than cheaper gasoline prices, despite all the talk of the economy trending toward a recession,” Townsend said.

As of Aug. 22, average prices nationwide were $2.60 a gallon, down 23 cents from about the same last year. It’s even cheaper around the D.C. area, too, Townsend said. The local average was $2.56 as of Aug. 22, compared with $2.80 a year ago.

For what it’s worth, the early forecast for Labor Day weekend appears to be mostly favorable for travel, too: partly cloudy, with temperatures in the mid-80s.

So when is the best time to be traveling?

In the terminals, the busiest air travel dates are expected to be Friday, Aug. 30 (worst), and Thursday, Aug. 29 (second worst), according to Airlines for America. The lightest days are expected to be Sunday, Sept. 1 (best) and Saturday, Aug. 31 (second best).

On the roads, it’s safe to say the best time is when you would rather be sleeping, said WTOP Traffic’s Bob Marbourg. “You have to outthink everybody else and … you have to travel any road when it is least convenient for you, because that’s when you’re less likely to find other people traveling.”

At the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, for instance — where over 440,000 are expected to cross over the weekend — the Maryland Transportation Authority recommends the following:

  • Thursday: Before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m.
  • Friday: Before 7 a.m. and after 9 p.m.
  • Saturday: Before 8 a.m. and after 6 p.m.
  • Sunday: Before 8 a.m. and after midnight
  • Labor Day: Before 10 a.m. and after midnight

That said, the weekend’s end around there will probably be bitter.

“There have been years in which we’ve seen volume delays toward the bridge persist past 10 p.m. at the end-of-summer getaways,” WTOP Traffic’s Dave Dildine said.

Be mindful, too, that patterns are shifting this time of year on the Beltway and I-95, as late summer traffic combines with back-to-school and “back-to-reality” traffic.

But the Tuesday after Labor Day won’t necessarily be frantic, Marbourg said. Instead, expect the volume to increase over the next few weeks.

“It doesn’t all come back the day after Labor Day,” he said.

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