U.S., Arkansas travelers seek summer-ending, Labor Day vacation break amid rising COVID-19 concerns
September 6-12, 2021
By Wesley Brown and Chloe McGehee
Millions of U.S. and Arkansas families are forecasted to hit the roads during the upcoming, extended Labor Day weekend but concerns about weather, COVID-19, and rising inflation could cause some would-be vacationers to make last-minute changes.
Using data from its widely adopted Daily Travel Index, New York travel data firm Arrivalist predicts that Americans will take 42.9 million road trips over Labor Day weekend this year. Compared to last year, trip volume will be 10% lower than 2019 and will miss 2020 numbers by one percent. Arrivalist predicts the impact will be larger on air travel than road trips.
Since Labor Day falls on the first Monday in September, the holiday will last through Sept. 6, marking the official end of the summer and the vacation season. According to many travel experts, however, many Labor Day vacationers will be taking off the entire week as a much-needed respite from months of remote work and school arrangements that began in March 2020.
“Road trips remain the most resilient form of travel in the pandemic,” says Arrivalist Founder and CEO Cree Lawson. “Considering the increased (COVID-19) case count, it’s surprising how resilient travel by private car has been. Americans are still hitting the road to have fun, see attractions, and visit family and friends at the same rate as last year, when cases were falling.”
“For some travelers that may back out of vacation plans, travel insurance options vary greatly but could potentially cover expenses related to the need to cancel or postpone a trip, flight delays or cancelations, and any extra hotel or transportation expenses incurred,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. While travel insurance policies have historically not covered epidemics or pandemics, some providers have started to introduce plans that cover some losses due to COVID-19 or other epidemic diseases, due to shifting consumer expectations.
“Travelers should consult the expertise of a knowledgeable travel agent who can help guide you through this decision-making process, including exploring travel insurance options to protect your vacation investment,” said Twidale. “Travel suppliers are also going the extra mile to help keep guests safe, in some cases requiring vaccines, but also adding wellness guides on tour vacations, cruise lines operating at reduced capacities, adding enhanced cleaning protocols throughout the travel landscape, and more.”
Noting that the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control has recently updated its guidance on mask-wearing, the AAA travel expert advised people in areas with high COVID-19 transmission such as Arkansas and surrounding states to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. The Biden Administration is also requiring passengers to wear a mask on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the U.S., and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations. Additionally, some states and cities have updated their masks and other travel requirements.
“Masks should be at the top of your packing list, since guidelines and requirements will vary from place to place,” added Twidale. “Also bring along disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer and a thermometer to help protect and monitor your health. For road trips, also consider packing water and extra snacks to reduce the need to stop along your trip.”
At the Bill & Hillary Clinton International Airport in Little Rock, local officials are not expecting a huge rush of late vacation getaways from Arkansas’ largest airport. Little Rock Airport spokesman Shane Carter said Labor Day isn’t typically one of the airport’s busiest holiday weekends as passenger traffic usually declines when school starts back.
“As of last week, we’re at 84% of our pre-COVID passenger traffic level,” Carter told The Daily Record. “However, with major holidays, TSA (Transportation Security Administration), airlines and our food and beverage operator will make operational changes, if any, based on passenger projections.”
Patricia Mancha, TSA spokeswoman for Arkansas and six other states, said travel numbers are expected to be higher than a normal weekend and airport security officials will staff accordingly and be prepared for the higher influx of travelers.
“At this time travel numbers continue to be high and have been all summer,” said Mancha, noting that U.S throughput data shows that the number of passengers passing through TSA security was at 1,629,475 travelers daily as of Aug. 30, up 129% from a year ago but down 28.5% from 2019.
Mancha said the New Orleans International Airport is closed to air travel and will likely not open until power and water service are restored. Other airports throughout Louisiana are operating with a few cancelations, while Mississippi and Alabama airports are operating with a few cancelled flights but should be back to full operation in the next day or two.
“Overall, the numbers may be smaller but not by much,” said Mancha.
Rising gas prices, construction zones
If traveling by road, motorists will see rising gas prices at the pump and should expect to pay a premium for rental cars, hotel rooms, airline tickets, and other vacation accommodations. That trip to grandma’s house or the amusement park may also take a little bit more time as roads and highways are expected to face delays due to overcrowded highways and traffic-jamming construction zones across the U.S., including Arkansas.
According to AAA, the national gas price average decreased by two cents on Sunday, the cheapest price since early July. However, prices on Tuesday (Aug. 13) were up two cents to $3.16 per gallon for regular unleaded just in time for Labor Day as the storm has left more than one million people in Louisiana and Mississippi without power and as 13% of U.S. refining capacity went offline. There were nine oil refineries in Ida’s path with at least four shutting down operations ahead of the storm.
“Until the power is restored, it’s too early to know the full impact of any damage Ida caused on the oil and gas industry, but motorists regionally can expect price fluctuations leading into Labor Day weekend,” said Jeanette McGee, AAA spokesperson. “Typically, a category 4 storm could mean three plus weeks before refineries are back to normal operations, while offshore production is more likely to resume this week.”
As a precautionary measure, Colonial Pipeline on Sunday shut down two main lines that run from Houston to Greensboro, N.C. Colonial, which delivers approximately 45% of all U.S. fuel to the East Coast, said the interstate system was taken offline following an infrastructure inspection after the hurricane.
Earlier in May, Colonial was the victim of an unknown cybersecurity attack that shut down its massive system that stretches from Houston to New York Harbor, the hub for the nation’s fuel and commodities trading system near the New York Mercantile Exchange and East Coast refinery system.
In Arkansas, motorists are seeing a wide array of pump prices in key markets across the state due to the impact of Ida and the Colonial pipeline shutdown, AAA data shows. For example, drivers in Jonesboro, Hot Springs and the Little Rock-North Little Rock metro area are seeing the cheapest gasoline at $2.77, $2.78 and $2.80 per gallon, respectively. However, motorists in Pine Bluff and Texarkana are seeing the highest prices on average to fill up their tanks, shelling out $2.88 and $2.92, respectively, for a gallon of gasoline. A year ago, prices were only $1.92 per gallon as most Americans delayed vacations due to the ongoing pandemic.
Truck drivers and other diesel-fuel vehicles, however, are not seeing the same spikes as the costs to fill up has remained around $3.11 per gallon over the past month. Still, diesel fuel prices are up 89 cents from a year ago levels of $2.22 per gallon. Motorists choosing a higher grade of premium gasoline at the pump are paying about $3.53 a gallon, up 35.2% from $2.61 per gallon a year ago.
Despite those average prices in key markets, drivers eager to roam can find prices below $2.29 per gallon in West Little Rock as Sam’s Club and Costco continue the price war following the arrival of the former wholesale club in the Central Arkansas market over a month ago.
Online fuel price monitor, GasBuddy.com, said it expects the string of weekly declines to end this week with gas prices likely starting to drift higher because of the refinery shutdowns.
“While the national average price of gasoline declined yet again over the last week, Hurricane Ida has been causing countless disruptions to critical infrastructure, including oil production, refineries and pipelines. We’re likely to see a reversal this week, but motorists need not be too concerned at this point,” said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy. “I expect the national average to rise in the neighborhood of 5-15 cents per gallon in the next couple of weeks- far smaller than the impact from Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, but with damage assessments still to come, it’s possible we see slight deviation from that.”
Motorists traveling to destinations near and far should also expect to pay a premium for rental car rates, hotel stays, and other vacation accommodations. For example, rental car rates have surged as much as 1000% in some markets due to the low quantity of available used cars – a result of a mass fleet sell-off during the 2020 downturn and the ongoing microchip shortage. According to the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, used car prices have spiked 41.7% in the past 12 months, the highest 12-month increase since 1982.
Meanwhile, the National Safety Council (NSC) encourages every vehicle owner to put safety first when coordinating late-summer travel. This is a time when many Americans will be taking road trips with their families and driving more often for the back-to-school season. NSC estimates that over 460 people may die on the roads during the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend. This year’s holiday fatality estimate is 19% higher than the 2020 Labor Day estimate of 390. Following a year with increased motor vehicle fatality rates across the country, NSC urges all Americans to proactively maintain the condition of their vehicles and practice safe driving.
“During this late-summer season, Americans will be driving at an increased rate, so it’s important to make sure the vehicle you’re driving is as safe as possible,” said Mark Chung, vice president of roadway practice at NSC.
And with highway construction ongoing in all areas of the state, including the I-30 Crossing project in downtown Little Rock that has shifted several lanes and offramps across the Arkansas River bridge, the Arkansas Highway Department (ARDOT) officials are encouraging motorists to exercise caution when approaching and traveling through all highway work zones.
The construction work in the downtown area is part of the ongoing construction of the I-30 Crossing project that is widening a 6.7-mile section of the interstate through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. The project is expected to be completed by late 2024 or early 2025, along with several other large highway construction projects across Central Arkansas.
The multi-year project consists of reconstructing the existing six-lane I-30 roadway while adding two decision lanes in each direction that ultimately feed into the collector and distributor lanes located at the I-30 Arkansas River Bridge. A split-diamond interchange will be used to distribute traffic onto the downtown road network.
The downtown traffic gridlock is part of the $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program (CAP), the largest highway construction program ever undertaken by ARDOT. Over the Labor Day holiday, however, construction crews will be taking some time off too, ARDOT officials said. “No main lane closures are scheduled between Friday, Sept. 3 and Tuesday morning, Sept. 7 due to the Labor Day weekend,” ARDOT said.
During the holiday, Arkansas drivers and motorists traveling through the state can get travel information at IDriveArkansas.com or ARDOT.gov.
Americans will take 42.9 million road trips over long holiday weekend, experts say. Construction crews continue work on I-30 and the Arkansas River bridge in Little Rock and North Little Rock that involves lane shifts and ramp closures for the $1 billion 1-30 Crossing project. State highway officials say drivers should exercise caution when approaching and traveling through all highway work zones during the Labor Day holiday.