Busy holiday weekend kicks off what’s likely to be a big summer for travel

Lower gas prices will likely mean more people hitting the road this year, energy expert says.

By Alexandra HartMay 29, 2023 12:23 pm, ,

The unofficial start of summer is here, and AAA is predicting this holiday weekend is going to be a busy one for travelers – way up over last year here in Texas. It’s projected to be one of the busiest travel holidays since the turn of the century, returning to levels not seen since the pandemic.

And that’s going to mean some busy gas stations and charging stations, too. A harbinger of things to come as the temperatures move toward the triple digits? Matt Smith, lead oil analyst for the Americas at Kpler, joined Texas Standard to share a preview of this summer’s travel season:

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What have the experts been telling you about this year’s Memorial Day weekend travel? How’s it shaping up compared to previous years?

Matt Smith: Well, it seems like it’s going to be very busy indeed, actually. So AAA has projected that 42.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more this weekend. And of that number, over 37 million of them are expected to be making road trips. And that number is up 6% versus last year, which equates to an extra 2 million people. So that means an extra 2 million are going to be hopping behind the wheel and putting that pedal to the metal.

So what’s behind more people hitting the road, and what are you hearing about summer more broadly? 

Despite inflation causing prices for pretty much everything to be higher compared to this time last year, gasoline prices are actually lower. So the reason for this is because this time last year, if you can remember, that’s when oil prices were ripping high, and they were peaking for the year at around $120 a barrel. So now, prices at the pump are currently just under $3.60 a gallon on the national average, which is a dollar per gallon lower than last year. So people are feeling pretty flush, pretty much, relatively wealthier.

And so for Texas the average is $3.15 a gallon, down $1.10 a gallon versus last year. So definitely they’re feeling that in the pocketbook there. In terms of summer driving season, it should be strong given how lower prices at the pump have such an influence on behavior. That said, we may still see demand is still lower than pre-pandemic levels on the aggregate there.

» Texas Standard special report: An in-depth look at Texas gas stations – past, present and future

You know, I’m curious about air travel, because I noticed that it seems like prices are relatively high and remaining rather stable. And I’ve seen some pictures from different airports around Texas, and they seem to be really busy this weekend. Are there any broader trends that you’re picking up on? 

I totally agree with you – airports feel like they’re crazy busy all the time. In terms of numbers for this weekend, 3.4 million travelers are expected to be flying to their destinations. That’s up 11% versus last year. But not just that: Air travel this weekend is expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels, being 5.4% higher than 2019.

And so even though plane tickets feel like they’re really expensive, airports could be their busiest this weekend since 2005. In a broader perspective as well, AAA is saying that this summer travel season could be one for the record books, especially at airports.

Of course, we’re going to have to wait for those numbers to settle out before we know for sure just how Memorial Day weekend looks. But with the projected increase in travel this summer that you were talking about earlier, I’m wondering, does that mean with the higher demand for energy, we’re going to see higher fuel prices and higher prices across the board for those who are thinking about some summer travel here?

It’s really going to depend on the price of oil. That’s the key driver of prices at the pump and jet fuel prices. And so as long as we see oil prices holding around the $70 level, then we should see prices at the pump remaining in check, which is obviously a good thing for us going on vacations.

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