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Travel tips for a Fourth of July that's set to break records

Travelers line up to get into the security checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare airport last summer.
David Schaper
Travelers line up to get into the security checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare airport last summer.

Fourth of July travel is set to break records with nearly 71 million people expected to make trips over the holiday.

Airports around the United States are preparing for what could be the busiest Fourth of July travel season on record. The nation's roads are no different. Traffic could reach never-before-seen volumes over the Independence Day holiday.

“With summer vacations in full swing and the flexibility of remote work, more Americans are taking extended trips around Independence Day,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in a press release. “We anticipate this July 4th week will be the busiest ever.”  

Nearly 71 million people are expected to make trips for the Independence Day travel period, AAA predicts.

Here's what to know about traveling for the holiday this week.

The TSA sets a new record and readies for another

Last week, a record-breaking 2.99 million passengers went through U.S. airports in a single day, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The agency said it's expecting a new travel record this week.

At Philadelphia International Airport, Gerardo Spero, the TSA’s federal security director for the airport, is dealing with an 8% passenger increase this year and is cautioning travelers to give themselves extra time.

“The best advice that I can offer is to get to the airport well before your ticketed departure time,” Spero said in a news release. “Now more than ever it is vital to give yourself plenty of time to park or return a rental car, check in with your airline to check bags and prepare for the security checkpoint."

Spero also said travelers can help each other out by being "efficient" in the security lines: take off shoes and belts preemptively, empty your pockets into your carry-on, and grab a bin early.

Over at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — where travel volumes are up 5% — the TSA wants travelers to double-check their carry-on bags before they get to the airport.

“We are asking travelers to be good partners with TSA and ensure that they are prepared for the screening process," TSA Federal Security Director for Washington Greg Hawko said in a release. "Please don’t bring prohibited items in your carry-on luggage."

The busiest airport days are expected to be July 3, 7 and 8, according to flight website Hopper. The company projects Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver airports to be the ones with the most travelers.

This rise in summer air travel comes amid heightened attention on aircraft maker Boeing's quality control practices after a door plug blew out on a 737 Max jet in midair at the start of the year. Still, flying is the safest way to travel.

On the road

Nearly one in five Americans are set to drive more than 50 miles this Fourth of July travel season, according to an AAA forecast.

If you want to beat the traffic, drive early. INRIX, a transportation data provider, said driving on Monday should save travelers time. Any day after that, the best time to drive is before 10 a.m.

“Drivers in large metro areas can expect the worst traffic delays on Wednesday, July 3, as they leave town, and Sunday, July 7, as they return,” Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX, said in a statement. “Road trips over the holiday week could take up to 67% longer than normal.” 

If you are preparing for a longer road trip with family and friends, AAA recommends running through this checklist: check kids' car seats, bring an emergency pack (first aid, jumper cables, snacks and water) and map the route.

At the pump, drivers can expect lower gas prices than last year with a gallon costing an average of $3.50. In 2023, gas cost $3.53 per gallon and in 2022, it cost nearly $5.

This year, the states with the most expensive gas are California ($4.80), Hawaii ($4.71), Washington ($4.21), Oregon ($4.07), Nevada ($4.04), Alaska ($3.90), Illinois ($3.88), Michigan ($3.70), Washington, D.C. ($3.66), and Indiana ($3.65).

Another cost to consider is tolls. Not all states have them, but check your route on Toll Guru to see how much change you might need on hand or how much money to have loaded on the E-ZPass.

The weather factor

High temperatures and a few thunderstorms are in the forecast for much of the country, according to AccuWeather. Both can cause travel delays.

The worst heat is expected in California.

"It's going to be downright hot across the Southwest, especially in California and the Desert Southwest where record highs will be challenged," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Joseph Bauer told the website.

The Southern Plains and Southeast regions are also expected to feel the heat over the Independence Day weekend with higher than average temperatures.

High temperatures can slow down travel. When temperatures get too high, railway tracks can start to bend — forcing trains to slow down or stop completely. And planes may face weight restrictions during severe heat.

Traveling during the morning or evening can help offset the risk of heat-related delays.

While much of the country will face high temperatures on the Fourth of July, the Northern Plains, Midwest and portions of the Northeast may see thunderstorms, according to AccuWeather.

Flight delays and cancellations

As a rule, airlines are required to offer travelers a refund or book them another flight if they cancel a passenger's flight. The rules surrounding flight delays are more complicated.

This U.S. Department of Transportation chart offers a full list of specific airline cancellation and delay policies.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Luke Garrett
Luke Garrett is an Elections Associate Producer at NPR News.

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