Summer travel heats up as Memorial Day kicks off busiest tourism season

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Interstate 75 traffic travels north while cars take the exit on the far right to Hamilton Place Boulevard.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Interstate 75 traffic travels north while cars take the exit on the far right to Hamilton Place Boulevard.

After completing another school year Wednesday, Atlanta third grader Niko Kouvarin and his mom, Kena, headed north to Chattanooga to celebrate the start of the summer season with a trip to Ruby Falls.

"I was here many years ago and wanted my son to be able to celebrate completing another year by coming to Lookout Mountain," Kena Kouvarin said Thursday when she arrived in Chattanooga. "It was a beautiful day for a drive here, and Chattanooga is always a great place to visit."

The drive may be more crowded Friday when most of the more than 42 million Americans expected to travel out of town this weekend hit the road and board airplanes to take advantage of the three-day holiday weekend that marks the unofficial start of summer.

AAA projects the number of travelers will be up 7% this weekend from a year ago, marking the highest year for Memorial Day travel since the pre-pandemic peak reached in 2019.

"This is expected to be the third-busiest Memorial Day weekend since 2000, when AAA started tracking holiday travel," Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in the association's holiday travel forecast. "More Americans are planning trips and booking them earlier, despite inflation. This summer travel season could be one for the record books, especially at airports."

AAA predicts 751,000 Tennesseans will hit the road for Memorial Day weekend. That's 40,500 more than in 2022 during the long holiday travel period.

Chattanooga's $1.5 billion-a-year tourism industry is bracing for another busy summer, which is traditionally the busiest period for Lookout Mountain attractions, whitewater expeditions on the Ocoee River and visits to the downtown Tennessee Aquarium.

"Visitation has been strong so far this year, and we anticipate it will continue through the summer," Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., said in an emailed statement. "Research suggests that more people intend to travel this summer, and Chattanooga is the perfect destination for easy, get-away road trips."


Ruby Falls President Hugh Morrow said attendance has been up this spring, "and we have seen no slowing of that trend as we approach our summer season." At nearby Rock City, also on Lookout Mountain, attendance jumped last summer to the highest level since the 1980s, and Rock City President Doug Chapin is expecting similar crowds this summer.

"Drive-to markets like Chattanooga should fare pretty well this summer," Chapin said in a telephone interview.

Chapin said Americans like to travel, and there is still some pent up demand from the travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

Motorists are benefiting from gasoline prices down by more than a $1 a gallon from a year ago, according to surveys. Renting a car is also cheaper than a year ago after the buildup of rental car inventories again after they declined during the pandemic.

"Tennessee has the cheapest gas prices anywhere we've been," said Todd Turner, a Port St. Lucie, Florida, resident who stopped in Chattanooga on Thursday before heading to Atlanta for a bowling tournament Friday.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation is suspending all construction-related lane closures on interstates and state routes beginning at noon Friday and c0ntinuing until 6 a.m Tuesday to provide maximum roadway capacity for the additional motorists on the road.

"We want to do our part to help everyone have an enjoyable and safe holiday weekend and keep traffic flowing as smoothly and efficiently as possible," TDOT Commissioner Butch Eley said in an announcement of the work holiday.

Hotel rates are up nearly 4.7% from a year ago to a national average of $157 a night, according to hotel data provider STR. Air fares are also higher for the nearly 3.4 million travelers expected to fly to their destinations this Memorial Day, according to AAA.

For air travelers, airline industry officials say carriers have fixed many of the staffing and scheduling problems that contributed to flight cancellations and delays in 2022. Airlines have hired about 30,000 workers in the past year and are using bigger planes on many flights.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the government will hold airlines responsible to treat passengers fairly when the carriers cause cancellations or long delays. But just like the airlines, the agency that manages the nation's air traffic — the Federal Aviation Administration — has had its own staffing shortages and occasional breakdowns of aging technology. The FAA is training 3,000 more controllers, but they won't be ready this summer.

The Chattanooga Airport has added more flights in the past year, which Morrow, the Ruby Falls president, said is boosting international travel to Southeast Tennessee. Passenger boardings at Chattanooga's Lovell Field were up 17.3% in the first three months of 2023 versus the same period a year ago, according to the airport.

"Chattanooga is well-positioned for a busy summer," said Morrow, a former chairman of TNHospitality, the statewide trade association for the travel industry.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.

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