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From the highways to the airports, the countdown to an unprecedented Fourth of July travel rush is on. And it comes on the heels of a week that’s seen flight delays and cancellations piling up.
This Independence Day travel period may be the busiest on record and a continuation of what we’ve seen since the summer season began. The early weeks of summer 2023 have brought the largest crowds in years, even larger than 2019 numbers. At airports, the Transportation Security Administration has seen some of the busiest days in its 22-year history.
And the congestion won’t just affect air travelers. AAA is projecting 50.7 million Americans will venture at least 50 miles from home for Independence Day this year, more than in any year past.
“What this tells us is that despite inventory being limited and some prices 50% higher, consumers are not cutting back on travel this summer,” Paula Twidale, AAA senior vice president of travel, said in a statement.
Here are some things to keep in mind whether you have flights booked, the car packed or are mulling last-minute plans.
» Learn more: The best travel credit cards right now
Plan for busy roads
As usual, a majority of Fourth of July travelers are driving.
Friday, June 30 is expected to be the busiest day on the road, AAA says, with average travel times projected to be up about 30% compared with a normal day.
Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C., are expected to see the worst traffic, according to transportation data provider INRIX.
There's one piece of good news, though, whether you’re driving straight from home or renting a car at your destination: Gas prices are down significantly from this time last year. The national average for a gallon of regular, unleaded gas is $3.56 as of June 27.
And consider a payment method that either saves you money or earns the best return on your purchase. At some stations, you can save by paying in cash. If you're paying with a credit card, use the card in your wallet that offers the highest cash back or credit card rewards at gas stations.
Prepare for large crowds at airports
Four of the TSA’s 10 busiest days ever have come since the start of Memorial Day weekend, according to agency data analyzed by NerdWallet. On eight occasions this summer, agents have screened 2.7 million passengers or more.
AAA predicts the share of travelers electing to fly (instead of, say, drive) will be at its highest level in nearly 20 years.
The busiest single day expected this holiday weekend? Friday, June 30, according to the TSA and NerdWallet.
Download the MyTSA app to track wait times. It allows you to see current and typical checkpoint wait times at whichever airport you’re visiting.
Other tips for smooth airport travel
If you have Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, make sure “TSA PreCheck” is printed on your boarding pass to avoid delays. If not, you might have to reenter your Known Traveler Number on your reservation.
When calculating how early you should arrive before a flight, don’t forget to factor in time spent looking for a parking space. Many airports let you save time and money by booking a parking spot in advance.
Download and monitor your airline’s app. It will provide you with the latest information about your flight’s departure time and make rebooking easier if something goes awry with your itinerary.
Will my flight be delayed?
Before this week, air travel operations had been off to a great start compared with last year, but that’s changed in recent days.
Between May 26 (the Friday of Memorial Day weekend) and June 26, U.S. airlines canceled 1% of flights, according to data from FlightAware. That’s an improvement from 2.7% during the equivalent time period last year. However, the rate of flight delays remains roughly steady from a year ago.
But recent days have brought back all-too-familiar scenes of packed terminals, crowded tarmacs and frustrated flyers. Bad weather in the Northeast led to tens of thousands of delays and cancellations this past week among the largest U.S. airlines, according to data from FlightAware. With staffing shortages of air traffic controllers, airlines say it's been hard to get back on track.
The bottom line
Though gas prices are lower and air travel operations generally running smoother than last year, the travel rush expected this Fourth of July warrants some extra preparation. Give yourself a bit of additional time and anticipate delays.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card