A record number of travelers are expected on Maine roads this holiday weekend, the unofficial start of summer.

Many of those motorists will travel on the Maine Turnpike, where officials expect traffic will top the record set last year over Memorial Day weekend. The Maine Turnpike Authority forecast calls for about 993,000 cars on the highway this weekend, an increase of 1.5 percent over 2018.

The heaviest traffic northbound was expected between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday, officials said, and traffic is expected to be heavy southbound all day Monday as out-of-staters head home.

In New England, the number of cars on the road over the Memorial Day weekend is expected to increase from 1.68 million last year to 1.75 million, according to the American Automobile Association. If that forecast holds true, it would mark the most cars on the road for Memorial Day weekend since 2005, it said.

Pat Moody, spokesman for AAA Northern New England, said the strong economy is fueling much of the increase in traveling.

“People are just more confident and willing to use their disposable income to travel,” Moody said.

Although work crews will have the long weekend off, lower speed limits in many work zones will remain in place, said Erin Courtney, spokeswoman for the turnpike authority. That’s because lane shifts will stay in place at those work sites and drivers will need to slow down, she said.

AAA New England said that even though gas prices have been rising – the national average is nearing $3 a gallon – it costs about the same as last year at this time and that isn’t expected to deter people from driving.

Other forms of travel in New England also are expected to see increases this weekend, with the number of airline passengers predicted to go up 4.4 percent over last year’s holiday weekend, and the number of passengers on trains, buses and cruise ships expected to rise 1.7 percent, AAA Northern New England said.

GasBuddy, a website that tracks fuel prices and travel trends, said its national survey predicts 16 percent more Americans will travel this summer than last.

Even though gas prices have surged this spring, they are 14 cents per gallon lower than last Memorial Day weekend.

“While the rise in prices has been steep this spring, perhaps the most important factor is that in many places, gas prices are still well below their all-time highs and perhaps even more importantly, over 50 percent of the nation’s gas stations are selling at $2.99 per gallon or less, and that’s a key ingredient in the recipe for many Americans to hit the road again this summer,” said Patrick DeHaan, head petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.

It will be busy at the Portland International Jetport this weekend as well, said Paul Bradbury, the airport manager, but mainly because seasonal air travel is picking up.

Bradbury said capacity on flights from the airport is tight and about 85 percent of outbound seats were full in April, up from 81 percent for the same month in 2018.

“That rare middle seat will be even more rare,” Bradbury said.

Airlines have had to switch planes with the grounding of the 737 Max planes after crashes in October and March. He said the planes the airlines brought in tended to have slightly less capacity, but now the airlines are gearing up for summer, the busiest season for flights to and from Maine, and adding flights.

For example, Bradbury said, February is the slowest month with an outbound capacity of about 81,000 seats from the jetport, while August is the busiest, with nearly 142,000 seats available.

NO CRYSTAL BALL

Although heavy Memorial Day traffic is usually a good omen for a strong tourist season, Maine officials caution about reading too much into the forecast.

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, the state’s hotel and restaurant industry trade association, said it’s difficult to translate heavy holiday traffic into an outlook for the  summer tourism season because people are increasingly inclined to make last-minute plans for travel. Nearly 37 million visitors came to Maine last year.

Maine is also a fragmented market, Hewins said, meaning a good year for southern Maine doesn’t necessarily mean the same for far northern Maine or the mountains.

“It’s really about five or six (tourist destination) markets at once,” he said.

Hotels along the southern coast of Maine and in Portland report strong advance bookings, but that’s not necessarily the case for midcoast Maine, Hewins said, noting that hotel bookings don’t take into account other vacation housing options, such as Airbnb or VRBO, which allow vacationers to rent out individual homes.

In addition, people have been tending to make travel plans just a few days in advance, after checking out the weekend weather forecast, he said.

For most, the days are long gone when families would book a hotel stay for August while snowflakes are still falling, Hewins said.

But Maine remains popular and its hospitality industry is riding several years of growth, he said. Last year tourism was credited with providing $6 billion to Maine’s economy. Publicity like Portland being named Bon Appetit magazine’s 2018 “Restaurant City of the Year” helps keep it going.

That followed years of accolades by other restaurant-related groups and magazines, Hewins said. He cautioned, however, that foodies who travel to sample local restaurants can be fickle.

“We have an incredible lead on the rest of the country,” he said, in attracting food-loving tourists, but cautioned, “We’re on the front page today, but it could be Boise, Idaho, next year.”


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