Chicago expressways, airports busy as Memorial Day Weekend travel picks up

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago's roads and airports are busy ahead of the Memorial Day Weekend, with a combined million travelers expected over the next few days.

With Memorial Day gas prices at their highest level in seven years, it's actually cheaper for many to fly. Passenger volume is expected to peak Friday morning, but already airports are bustling.

At O'Hare, the security line was several rows deep Thursday evening. And there are other signs air travel is taking off.

"I got an alert that the entire planes are full... and they're trying to bump people. So it's different. It's different, it is. It's like 2019," air traveler Mary Daddono said.

More than 800,000 passengers are expected to pass through O'Hare this holiday weekend, a more than six-fold increase over the same period last year.

"It's insane compared to a couple of months ago. It's completely different. There are a lot of people around," air traveler Mohammed Mebaoudj said.

If you're traveling by road, the biggest delays were expected in Chicago between 2:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. Thursday. The Eisenhower Expressway was expected to be the busiest highway.

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According to AAA, nearly 9 out of 10 people traveling for Memorial Day Weekend will do so by car, with 1.7 million in Illinois alone. But it won't be cheap. Gas prices have not been this high since 2014.

This year, gas prices are over a dollar more than they were this time last year. As of Thursday morning, the national average is about $3.04. That jumps to $3.26 in Illinois and some southern states are still experiencing gas shortages.

"I had to pay $3.38 a gallon for 87 octane. So ugh. Fortunately our van gets relatively good mileage," traveler Jared Wilkey said.

And then there is the car rental market. A recent study shows that even if you're willing to pay for it, the shortage is such, rentals are completely sold out in many parts of the country.

"Usually prices go up and you can get a car if you're willing to pay. Now we have a double whammy. Prices are through the roof, but over a third of the markets we found cars weren't even available," said Prof. Joe Schwieterman, DePaul University.

Flying is getting more expensive, as airlines scramble to get enough planes back into the air to meet pent up demand.

"We're seeing the effects we all anticipated. Great pent-up demand. People are ready to go. And when that CDC guidance came out, those stimulus checks arrived, people made plans," Schwieterman said.

"We are adding flights to leisure destinations that customers want to go to," said Omar Idris, United Airlines. "Traffic is coming back quickly and we have to be in a position to respond. We are, are really pleased."

Mask mandates remain in effect at airports and on planes.

If you're traveling via railways, a vaccination clinic will be available at Union Station Friday through Sunday.

The state reported that nearly 100 trains carrying more than 30,000 travelers will be passing through the station on Amtrak trains this weekend. For hotels in the city, this weekend is shaping up to be the busiest in 14 months.

"Room rates are up about 50% where they were at this point last year, and that's a critical metric that we measure in terms of our recovery," said Michael Jacobson, President & CEO, Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association.

But even with a 60% increase in Memorial Day travel compared to last year, the pandemic is still having an effect on people's plans.

"It's still 14% below pre-pandemic. But people are anxious to get out and where people want to go is beaches or mountains. They're still more comfortable being in outdoor places," said Molly Hart, AAA.
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