Holidays, on ice: COVID-19 upends Memorial Day weekend travel plans

A lone passenger is silhouetted against the windows at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s Terminal 4 in this file photo. While Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the start of the summer travel season, experts say it is nearly impossible to predict who travel will be this weekend, as the nation tries to emerge from COVID-19 shutdowns. (Photo by Alan Levine/Creative Commons)

The travel forecast for this Memorial Day weekend is fuzzy – just another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the first time in 20 years, AAA has canceled its Memorial Day travel forecast as COVID-19 has affected the way it collects data for its survey. Experts say the traffic is not likely to be anywhere near the 43 million Americans who traveled for the holiday last year, but after that it’s anybody’s guess.

“I think people just don’t know. I think people in the industry don’t know either,” said Eileen Ogintz, a family travel columnist. “It is just hard to gauge what is going to happen.”

That’s true for all aspects of summer travel, with restrictions and concerns over COVID-19 likely to force Arizonans to look for alternative summer vacation plans.

AAA Arizona spokesperson Aldo Vazquez said travelers should be prepared for varying COVID-19 guidelines if they are going to other states. That includes traveling with masks and hand sanitizers and double-checking their preparations.

“Many travel providers – airlines, hotels, cruises – they have also altered their itinerary and adjusted policies in response to the pandemic,” Vazquez said. “A lot of them are being very flexible right now in terms of working with you to kind of help you in the event that there is something that happens given the state of affairs.”

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That state of affairs includes varying degrees of reopening in Arizona and other states. Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-home executive order expired May 15, allowing for limited reopening of parks, stores, restaurants and other businesses.

Vazquez said the social distancing guidelines endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are still recommended. But AAA does expect domestic travel to slowly increase over the course of the summer.

He said the 43 million Americans who traveled last Memorial Day weekend was the second-highest since AAA began tracking the data in 2000. The lowest number was 31 million travelers in 2009, just as the recession hit. While there is no hard data this year, Vazquez said AAA expects travel volume this Memorial Day will be similar to 2009’s numbers.˜

Ogintz said that while people may be desperate to get outdoors, spontaneous trips this summer may have to be put on hold due to uncertainties in travel.

On her website, “Taking the Kids,” she points to virtual vacations as a possible alternative for people who wish to stay this summer inside but still visit new places. Her website says virtual webcams or online classes may be the vacations some families are looking for.

For those who decide traveling outside is right for them, Vazquez said they could embrace “the year of the road trip” as traveling restrictions ease.

The Arizona Office of Tourism’s “Rediscover Arizona” is focused on in-state road-trippers, said Joshua Coddington, communications director for the office. The campaign website explains how people can take day trips to state parks or go on road trips around the state, and includes tips for following health guidelines while traveling.˜

“It (the campaign) is basically encouraging people who are already in Arizona to go rediscover something that they haven’t been to in a long time or that they never have been to,” Coddington said.

While Memorial Day is the traditional kickoff to the summer travel season, however, both Vazquez and Ogintz note that this year is different and that the decision on whether to travel or not needs to be an individual one.˜

“Even though people are anxious to get out there and travel and be out for the summer, it is recommended that you put off any nonessential travel for the time being,” Vazquez said.

Ogintz agreed, saying travel is supposed to be enjoyable, not nerve-wracking.

“If you’re going to be nervous the whole time, if you aren’t going to feel comfortable, certainly stay home,” Ogintz said. “There is always next year.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Lisa Diethelm grew up in California and expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a certificate in philosophy, rhetoric and literature. Diethelm is a digital reporter for Cronkite News. She also serves as the editor in chief and politics editor for the Downtown Devil.