Traveling for July 4th Weekend? Expect Crowds. Everywhere.

Wall Street Journal – Travel for the July Fourth holiday weekend is expected to reach levels not seen since before the Covid-19 pandemic, as millions of Americans make bucket-list trips or reunite with family and friends after a year-plus of lockdowns and distancing.

With 46% of Americans fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and mask mandates lifting in theme parks and cities nationwide, the travel industry expects a frenzy from now through Labor Day weekend.

AAA forecasts that some 47 million people are expected to travel from July 1 to 5. This weekend is expected to have the highest auto-travel volume on record, surpassing 2019 levels.

Pent-up demand among travelers has caused shortages and price spikes. Daily rates for rental cars are currently at $166, about a 140% increase from 2019 prices, according to the automobile association. Some will be out of luck because of a surge in demand for road travel continuing from last year and chip shortages causing supply problems at car-rental companies.

Gas prices are expected to be upward of $3 a gallon on average, the most expensive since 2014, according to AAA. Prices soared because of the oil industry’s recovery and climbing consumer demand.Estimated Number of Travelers OverIndependence Day HolidaysSource: American Automobile AssociationmillionAutoAir2000’05’10’15’2001020304050

The Federal Aviation Administration said it saw the highest traffic in the national airspace system since the beginning of the pandemic on June 24, with more than 47,000 flights during the 24-hour period. The agency said it expects to surpass that level of traffic leading up to the holiday weekend.

U.S. airports have been averaging around two million passengers a day in the past month—still down from 2019 levels but higher in recent months, according to Airport Council International-North America. The Transportation Security Administration said it expects the number of travelers at airports to increase by Wednesday or Thursday.

TSA recommends that passengers traveling to large airports arrive two hours before departure time. Slowing down the lines are also travelers rusty after a year or so spent at home.

More passengers have been caught in security lines with prohibited items like water bottles and large tubes of toothpaste in their carry-ons, the TSA said, resulting in more inspection—and longer lines.

Last year, the number of expected travelers for July Fourth weekend fell to its lowest level since 2009. Vaccinated Americans are eager to engage in “revenge travel” this weekend, said Julie Hall, a spokeswoman for AAA, referring to a trend where travelers are keen on making up for lost time. She added that many people who were able to save money during the pandemic are spending more on travel than they did in past years.

Outdoor activities like hiking and visiting national parks continue to be in high demand.

Jeramiah Dooley, a cloud advocate manager for Microsoft out of Charlotte, N.C., decided to rent a car and embark on a national-parks road trip with his two teenagers after weighing the costs of travel. Mr. Dooley says this will be the family’s first big vacation since before the pandemic, and they plan for July Fourth at Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis before continuing on to Yellowstone National Park and Utah.

“They’re going into high school. There won’t be that many more summers for us to be able to, with no apologies to anyone, just go out and have crazy family adventures. So I’m going to embrace that as much as I possibly can for the rest of the time we have available,” said Mr. Dooley.

Jon Gray, chief executive of RVshare, a peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace, said the platform is seeing double the number of bookings this year, compared with last year, as travelers seek more affordable alternatives to airline tickets, rental cars and hotels. Top destinations include Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Mount Rushmore.

In addition to national parks, theme parks are roaring back to life, with long lines. Anaheim, Calif., and Orlando, Fla.—homes of the Disney theme parks—are the top travel destinations for this holiday weekend, according to AAA. Disneyland reopened to out-of-state visitors June 15, while Disney World reopened its parks at 25% capacity in July of last year and has increased its operating capacity since.

Greg Antonelle, co-owner of MickeyTravels, which he said typically books about 10,000 Disney vacations a year, has seen an increase in bookings for the July Fourth weekend. Mr. Antonelle attributed the increase to Disney’s loosened mask mandate as well as the return of the nightly Magic Kingdom and Epcot fireworks shows, which will resume on July 1 after being suspended during the pandemic.

“It’s 20 minutes out of their day, but it’s such a huge part of people’s vacations and the memories,” he said.

After battling traffic or long airport lines, travelers may encounter headaches at their destinations, too. Lyft and Uber prices have skyrocketed because of a lack of drivers. Some businesses have cut their hours, as labor shortages continue to affect several sectors of the hospitality industry, including theme parks and restaurants. Travelers will likely encounter long lines at their destinations, as many businesses continue to operate with limited staffing.

American Airlines recently cut around 950, or 1%, of its scheduled flights through mid-July in part because of labor shortages affecting the industry. A spokeswoman for American said all affected customers have been accommodated. Southwest Airlines said it would be offering double-time pay for flight attendants during Fourth of July weekend to head off staffing shortages.

Restaurants and shops that operate in airports haven’t been able to hire quickly enough to fully reopen, leading to long lines for passengers. Outside airports, some hotels and restaurants have limited services because of a shortage of workers.

Still, many travelers say it will be worth the trouble.

Anamika Gautam plans to set off for Chicago from Columbus, Ohio, early Saturday morning to visit friends. She had planned to leave Friday, but the Ohio State University health sciences major has an exam that night. Even though gas prices are higher than normal, Ms. Gautam said driving is ultimately cheaper than flying and worth a quick holiday weekend getaway.

“With Covid, everything has felt so stagnant,” said Ms. Gautam. “Being able to get away from normal life and having a change of scenery is what I’m looking forward to most.”