Near-record gasoline prices didn't keep Nicole Caradona and her two daughters from starting a getaway weekend Friday at the start of the July 4 holiday weekend.
But it did keep the Decatur, Georgia, family closer to home.
"We had been thinking about going up the East Coast to Maryland, but with higher gas prices we decided to travel a bit less and check out Chattanooga instead," Caradona said outside of Ruby Falls on Lookout Mountain Friday afternoon. "From here we're headed to Nickajack Lake to go kayaking with some friends. There's just a lot to do here."
The Caradonas are among 42 million Americans who are expected to travel by car away from home over the three-day holiday weekend - the highest number ever projected by AAA for the Independence Day weekend. Although air travel is still projected to be down due to travel delays and cancellation concerns, the nearly 48 million Americans projected by AAA to travel at least 50 miles away from their home this weekend is up 3.7% from last year and just shy of the pre-pandemic high reached in 2019.
"Earlier this year, we started seeing the demand for travel increase, and it's not tapering off," Paula Twidale, senior vice president for AAA Travel, said in a travel forecast for the Fourth of July weekend. "People are ready for a break and despite things costing more, they are finding ways to still take that much-needed vacation."
Michael and Shelley Melcher, who live in San Antonio, Texas, stopped in Chattanooga on a road trip the couple is making this week through Indiana, Tennessee and Georgia before visiting some friends in Nashville.
"We had these plans for some time, and we're not going to change them just because gas is more expensive," Shelley Melcher said. "That doesn't mean I like what we're having to pay for gas. But you choose what adventures you want in life, and we like to travel."
Car travel volume, even with national average gas prices going over the $5 mark, will break previous records, Twidale said. Ongoing concerns of cancellations and delays for air travel may be driving some of the increased road traffic. AAA projects the share of people traveling by air will be the lowest since 2011.
Fourth of July holiday travel up from last year
As a "rubber-tire destination" within a day's drive of over half the U.S. population, Chattanooga is well-positioned for the travel shift this year, according to Hugh Morrow, the CEO of Ruby Falls, who is chairman of the Chattanooga Tourism Co. Chattanooga is less expensive than major U.S. cities and closer to more people than traveling out West or to Europe.
"Pre-booking numbers indicate robust Fourth of July visitation sustaining the growth experienced in 2021," Morrow said in an email Friday as Ruby Falls prepared for the busy holiday weekend. "Chattanooga's hospitality industry is excited and ready to welcome visitors this weekend and through the summer season."
Tourism spending in Chattanooga, which plunged nearly 30% in 2020 during the worst of the pandemic, is projected to rise above $1.5 billion again this year.
Pain at the pump
Chattanooga motorists will pay more than 60% higher prices at the pump than a year ago, but fuel prices have eased some in the past week.
Average gasoline prices in Chattanooga fell last week for the third consecutive week, dropping by 10.7 cents per gallon to an average of $4.36 per gallon, according to GasBuddy's survey of 170 stations in Chattanooga. Prices in Chattanooga, which average 52 cents a gallon below the national average, are still 18.4 cents per gallon higher than a month ago and stand $1.65 a gallon higher than a year ago, GasBuddy.com said.
"While prices will be at their highest July 4 level ever, they'll have fallen close to 20 cents since our peak in early June," Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, said in a report issued earlier this week. "Motorists should be wary that while the decline could continue for the week ahead, any sudden jolts to supply could quickly cause a turnaround, and risk remains that when the peak of hurricane season arrives, we could see a super spike at the pump."
After two years of pandemic shutdowns or limits on travel, many Americans are eager to hit the road for family vacations this summer. And with airlines continuing to report relatively high levels of flight cancellations or delays, a bigger share of travelers are doing so in their own vehicles.
Delta Air Lines warned that it expects "operational challenges" over the busy Fourth of July weekend and is allowing customers to change their travel dates to avoid havoc.
Atlanta-based Delta is taking the unusual move of issuing a travel waiver for the July 1-4 period on any flights across its entire system, so customers can easily shift their trips to before or after that period and avoid what the carrier calls "potentially challenging weekend travel days."
"Traveling by car does provide a level of comfort and flexibility that people may be looking for given the recent challenges with flying," Twidale said.
Overall, AAA predicts Independence Day will be the second busiest since 2000, as travel volumes continue to trend upwards with no sign of slowing down.
"Nobody likes higher prices, but it's not going to stop us from traveling," said Ambre Minzghor, an Ottawa, Illinois, mother who brought her children to Tennessee this weekend to see family and some of the local attractions.