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Holiday weekend kicks off summer road trip season for many

By Janet Moore

Star Tribune

The Cogbill family of suburban Minneapolis thought Memorial Day would be a great time for its first-ever family camping trip. But a peek at the weather forecast for Minnesota this weekend revealed possible showers, and temperatures in the 50s.

They opted for the sunny skies of Phoenix instead, undeterred by the expected three-day holiday rush.

“We’re used to traveling, so it’s no big deal,” said Kandice Cogbill, who waited for her flight with  daughters Malorie, 6, and Amelia, 3, in Terminal 1 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Friday morning.

This Memorial Day, Minnesotans are expected to brush off those dreary spring doldrums and take to the highways, rails and skies to jump-start the summer vacation season. Experts predict a fairly brisk one.

About 74 percent of the 400 Minnesotans queried by AAA are planning to take a vacation involving overnight stays of three days or more this summer, according to the group’s Consumer Pulse survey, which had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points. Most are heading to warm places, and spots abroad.

The vast majority — nearly 88 percent, or 34 million people nationwide — will be driving to their destinations, said AAA-Minnesota spokeswoman Gail Weinholzer. They’ll pay a little more to gas up their vehicles — average gas prices per gallon are $2.30 across the state, compared with $2.23 a gallon a year ago.

“That’s still well below the $3 mark that we’ve been accustomed to in previous years,” Weinholzer said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation listed more than two dozen road projects —from East Grand Forks to Owatonna —that will be under construction this holiday weekend. Metro-are roads will be clogged in spots, too.

“In Minnesota and the northern half of the country, when travel picks up significantly in the summer, so does road construction,” Weinholzer said. “People need to be aware by adding extra time to their trip, and be respectful of the [construction] folks working on the roadside.”

Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the MN Resort & Campground Association, says the group’s 350 members expect a 3 to 6 percent increase in reservations this summer.

This is due to healthy consumer confidence, low unemployment and a strong stock market, which is key for older travelers whose livelihoods depend on income from their 401(k) retirement accounts. Even if gas prices are slightly higher, McElroy said, “they’re still at a level that people are comfortable with.”

But low unemployment rates can dampen lodging demand because employees may be working longer hours. “When employers can’t hire, that may make harder for a quick weekend getaway,” he said.

For the summer, the Washington, D.C.-based industry group Airlines for America predicts a 4 percent increase in air travel between June 1 and Aug. 31, with some 234 million passengers flying to their destination.

This, despite highly publicized controversies recently involving rowdy customers and surly airline and airport employees.

“If you act like an adult, you won’t have a problem,” said Jeff Richards, another local suburbanite who was waiting to board a plane to Topeka, Kan., Friday, where he was planned to visit the Evel Knievel museum.

Cliff Van Leuven, federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration at MSP Airport, said more staff will screen travelers at the airport this summer. Some 32,000 travelers pass through screening at both MSP terminals on an average day.

Last summer, there were two extremely busy days with about 40,000 passengers screened, Van Leuven said. But this summer, TSA expects at least 31 days with more than 40,000 travelers being screened, a 6.7 percent increase. Last summer, TSA employed 629 full-time equivalent employees at MSP; that has increased to 656 employees now.

All told last year, some 3.4 million passengers were screened at MSP. TSA expects 3.65 million screenings this summer, Van Leuven said. Thursdays are generally the busiest day of the week in terms of crowds.

Van Leuven attributes the expected surge in travel to the Twin Cities’ “thriving economy, and people feel safe.” Big events planned for this summer in the Twin Cities that will draw out-of-town visitors include the X Games, at US Bank Stadium July 13 to 16, and Schwan’s USA Cup youth soccer events at the National Sports Center in Blaine July 14 to 21.

Recent terror attacks like the one in Manchester, England, don’t appear to discourage Twin Cities travelers from flying, Van Leuven said.

“In the face of a shocking worldwide terrorist threat that play out on social media and in the national media, the American public still gets on airplanes and it’s still our job to protect them and treat them with respect,” he said.

Where are people going? AAA says the top domestic destinations are warm-weather ones: Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Anaheim, Calif., Miami and Las Vegas. That’s partly because of the harsh weather so much of the country endured last winter. International travelers are flocking to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Rome, Montego Bay, Jamaica, London and Nassau, Bahamas.

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