Cheaper gas prices and growing optimism about the economy are expected to fuel the busiest Memorial Day travel weekend in a decade, AAA Northern California says.
That will require travelers to prepare well and be patient as they encounter jammed freeways and long airport security lines. AAA projects 4.6 million Californians plan to travel at least 50 miles, exceeding travel records since 2005, with 3.9 million of them hitting the roads. Air travel also is expected to increase by 2.4 percent from 2015, with 426,000 people flying.
Carmen Poblano and her husband, Johnny, will experience the extra traffic both in the air and on the road during their annual Memorial Day weekend getaway to Las Vegas. Poblano, who estimated she and her husband have made the trek for 20 years, said she enjoys the chance to relax and do things as a couple.
But to minimize the frazzle from going there and coming back, they’ve had to devise a strategy: to avoid the morning rush at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, they will fly out Saturday afternoon; to get home in time for work, they will drive back in a rental car.
Still, on the drive back, Poblano’s under no illusions that it’ll be anything but a long, slow ride. “There will be (traffic), and there always is, especially with the holidays. It’ll be very busy.”
The busy Memorial Day weekend will see California Highway Patrol officers swarming the highways as part of the CHP’s maximum enforcement period, which runs from 6 p.m. Friday through 11:59 p.m. Monday.
“Memorial Day weekend signifies the start of travel season for us,” CHP spokesman Axel Reyes said. “We are always at maximum enforcement during this season – we will always have officers out there. We will be here, and we will try to get folks to their destinations as soon as possible.”
Officers will be watching for seat belt usage, distracted driving, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. On Memorial Day last year, 31 people died in collisions, two-thirds of whom were not wearing seat belts. More than 1,200 people were arrested for DUIs.
Reyes recommended leaving plenty of time for driving and preparing to sit in traffic to avoid being rushed. “Plan your trip to take breaks. You don’t want drowsy drivers,” he said. “Especially if you’re traveling with kids, plan plenty of breaks.”
He advised all drivers to check their vehicle for proper fluids and good tires. Those going to the Lake Tahoe area or elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada should bring chains in case of snow, and the desert-goers should plan for lots of heat.
While Valley residents traveling out of town are used to traffic, according to AAA’s projections, this weekend’s traffic will be worse – especially for people planning to return Monday afternoon. AAA Northern California spokeswoman Cynthia Harris said drivers should consider returning Sunday evening, or Monday morning or evening, to avoid the heaviest traffic. “The earlier you leave, the better off you’ll be,” she said.
The advice to drivers — to leave early and plan for delays – applies as well to airplane passengers, who may have to negotiate Fresno Yosemite’s long early-morning lines.
Spokeswoman Vikkie Calderon said the airport has added 17 percent seat capacity for holiday and summer travelers compared to last year. Still, most airlines say they’re fully booked for the weekend.
While more capacity will accommodate more passengers, the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration still encourage passengers to arrive two hours prior to scheduled flight departure, and three hours prior to an international flight departure.
Since security lines at the Fresno airport are consistently longer in the mornings, Calderon said fliers should arrive early, especially for morning flights, to allow sufficient time to get through airline check-in and screening. To ensure lines don’t bog down, she said, passengers should familiarize themselves with prohibited items for checked and carry-on baggage.
In addition, Airlines for America, the industry trade organization for U.S. airlines, encourages fliers to enroll in TSA’s PreCheck or Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry for faster security lines, and for any fliers who endure long wait times to share them on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #ihatethewait.
The Fresno airport has initiated a customer service ambassador program, at both baggage claim and the terminal, to assist passengers with needs and provide information, Calderon said.
Travelers who want to avoid airport lines or freeway jams can take the train. Riders on Amtrak’s San Joaquin line can take advantage of new discounts offered by the San Joaquin Joint Authority, which now runs the rail line, spokesman Dan Leavitt said. Since gas prices are down, the new discounts will help the service compete with driving, he said.
For those who want to just say ‘the heck with it’ and stay home, Layla Forstedt with the Fresno-Clovis Convention and Visitors Bureau says there are plenty of things to do much closer to home – Glorious Junk Days will take place in Old Town Clovis, the Fresno Grizzlies are home all weekend, there are bus lines to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, and area water parks are open.
Plus, Fresno’s weather promises clear, sunny days with highs in the low 90s, cool evenings and mornings with lows in the low 60s, and pleasant breezes.