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Upcoming summer travel season projected to meet or exceed pre-pandemic levels

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Posted at 4:15 PM, May 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-24 20:01:48-04

CLEVELAND — Whether it’s by land or by air, more than 40 million Americans are expected to travel more than 50 miles from home to visit family and friends over Memorial Day weekend, which is projected to be the third busiest since 2000, according to AAA.

Despite higher-than-normal gas prices, officials said there is still a significant amount of pent-up demand. With the state’s new distracted driving law in effect and a parking crunch at Cleveland-Hopkins, there are plenty of things travelers should keep in mind this weekend.

AAA expects 42.3 million Americans to travel over 50 miles on the weekend, with nearly 3.4 million Americans flocking to the nation’s airports. The number of Americans expecting to fly for the holiday weekend should exceed even pre-pandemic levels. AAA anticipates Memorial Day weekend 2023 to be the busiest weekend at the nation’s airports since 2005.

“There has been a resurgence in travel. It’s back. People are excited about it,” said Jim Garrity, the director of public affairs for AAA’s East Central division. “In fact, when you look at gas prices this year — yeah, they are relatively expensive — but we’re sitting about a dollar cheaper than this time last year. Even with gas prices reaching record highs last summer, Americans were doing what they had to do to offset those costs. We expect them to continue to do so and not have to put those trips on hold or cancel their trips altogether. Instead, so they can pay that extra amount at the pump because that’s how excited they are.”

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Memorial Day has long been considered a "driving holiday," and 2023 is no different, with 37 million Americans expecting to hit the roads. The two busiest days on the roads this year will be Thursday and Friday, and peak travel times should occur in the late afternoon and early evening.

With many major road projects currently underway in Northeast Ohio, state transportation officials said construction zones would be opened up ahead of the weekend, assuming it is safe and feasible to do so. ODOT officials hope drivers do their part, too.

"Sadly, last year, 133 ODOT crews — that includes workers and equipment — were struck on Ohio's roads," said Brent Kovacs, the spokesperson for ODOT District 12. "Everybody just needs to watch the construction zones that are currently active on I-480 from Lee Road to the I-77 interchange and going out east further. "[The state's new] distracted driving law is in the correct direction. With folks putting their phones down and not touching them while driving is a very important thing for all of us that work on the side of the road. Just by moving over and slowing down for any vehicle with flashing lights will make a huge difference."

In April, the state's enhanced distracted driving law went into effect, which makes it illegal in most circumstances for drivers to hold or use their phone while driving. Under the law, law enforcement agencies have been participating in a public awareness campaign and have been issuing warnings to distracted drivers instead of citing them. Beginning in October, distracted drivers can expect to receive a citation.

"Distracted driving is still on the rise, unfortunately. Since the law is still relatively new, it is still in the warning phase of that law. The troopers are taking active enforcement and that primary violation where they are able to stop people for that. They have been issuing warnings for that violation," said Lt. Pablo Cruz, the commander of OSHP's Cleveland Post. "Hopefully, by the time the enforcement phase comes around, we could see it taper off."

Last year, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, colloquially known as the 100 Deadliest Days of Summer, there were nearly 70,000 crashes in Ohio, killing about 400 people. Cuyahoga County accounted for roughly 10% of those crashes (8239), which ranks the highest in the state.

"The main thing is let's get to our destinations safely," Cruz said. "The overall goal is saving lives and reducing fatal crashes, serious injury crashes, so loved ones can be home during these holidays and every day after that."

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Road trips are only part of the summer travel season, however. Crowds at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport should be among the largest in recent memory. Airport officials anticipate some 3.2 million passengers to arrive and depart at Hopkins this summer, which would mark a 14% increase over the same period in 2019.

"Back in 2019, we had 2.8 million passengers. As you can see, that's a significant increase," said John Hogan, deputy chief of air service development at Hopkins. "2008 was the last time we saw one million passengers in one given month at Cleveland-Hopkins. If all goes well, we expect over one million passengers in the month of July."

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With even more passengers going to and from Hopkins this summer, there will be an even greater demand for the airport's on-site parking lots. However, the airport is expecting to be withoutroughly 2,000 of its 7,000 total parking spaces due to ongoing maintenance and rehab work at the airport's smart garage. The ongoing construction has reduced the garage's capacity in half. To alleviate the parking pinch, airport officials recently opened another satellite parking lot — dubbed the "gray" lot.

To help prevent any parking-related headaches, officials urge travelers to check the airport's website to determine if parking spaces are available. Officials also encourage travelers to use RTA's rapid line or rideshare services like Uber and Lyft.