Record-breaking travel numbers expected in Michigan this holiday season

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house might be the best option for travel this holiday.

It’s going to be crowded on the roads, in the air and on the rails.

More than 3.6 million Michigan travelers will break holiday records in the coming days, according to AAA. And more Americans than ever on record — 115.6 million — will travel from Saturday through Jan. 1. That is the most in nearly 20 years since AAA began tracking in 2000, and it represents an increase of 3.9% over last year. In Michigan, travel is up 3.1% from 2018.

“Travelers in Michigan should be getting used to crowded highways and airports, as this marks the sixth straight year of new record-high travel volumes for the year-end holidays,” AAA spokeswoman Adrienne Woodland said.

Travelers wait in line at the Delta Airlines check-in at the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport earlier this month.

She said there are a number of reasons for the increase in travelers. And more money in a passenger's pockets is one of them. 

“Despite some near-term wobbles, the U.S. economy continues to grow at a slightly above-trend pace,” she said. "Unemployment remains at historically low levels, and noted improvements in both disposable income and household net worth are motivating record numbers of Americans to travel this year-end holiday season.”

AAA reports that 3.3 million Michigan residents will drive to their holiday destinations. Nearly 202,000 Michiganians are expected to fly — the most since 2004. Nearly 113,000 are expected to travel by trains, buses and cruise ships, which is 3% more than last year.

But all this travel is bound to impact traveling time.

Woodland said drivers nationally could experience double the travel times on Thursday and Friday afternoon next week, with Metro Detroit experiencing double the travel times Thursday afternoon.

AAA expects to rescue more than 853,000 motorists at the roadside over the year-end holidays, Woodland said. She attributes this to dead batteries, lockouts and flat tires as the leading reasons AAA members will have car trouble.

“Before hitting the road, make sure your vehicle is road trip ready; take it to a trusted repair facility to perform any needed maintenance before heading out,” she said.

Detroit Metropolitan Airport spokeswoman Lisa Gass said DTW is expecting to see 1,135,256 total passengers between Friday and Jan. 1.

“We are continuously seeing an increase in the number of origin and destination passengers,” she said. “These are travelers who are visiting or reside in the Metro Detroit area. We believe this trend to be directly related to how well the local economy is doing.”

Transportation Security Administration supervisor Tom Lyon shows examples of prohibited items surrendered at the security checkpoint at the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The airport is expecting an average of 44,000 passengers each day through Jan. 5. The amount of travelers is increasing at a rate of 2% each year, said Steve Lorincz, federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration.

With the surge of passengers, TSA is warning against fliers bringing prohibited items in their carry-on, including knives, box-cutters, hammers, defense weapons, tools, firearms and over-sized toiletries. Most things are fine in checked luggage, but many people forget them in their carry-on, said TSA supervisor Tom Lyon. 

"For most of these, people will not get in trouble, but some switchblades and double-edged knives, replica firearms, these are things we have to make a police call for," Lyon said. "It's quicker if you don't have them with you. We have to stop, get people involved, and it just slows the line."

Agents say they have seen many weird items that have triggered alarms but are fine to travel with.

"The weirdest thing I've ever found was in a checked bag, and it was a full (dead) bear. I opened the luggage, and there was a small bear. ... It was the entire bear. It's not prohibited, just a scary thing to see," he said. "Often it's dried or dead meat. Someone once brought folded-up dead raccoons."

Airport officials recommend travelers wait to wrap gifts they plan to travel with. Wrapped gifts might need to be opened by TSA, which could cause delays at the screening checkpoints.

"It's usually kids toys that sound the alarm like slime kits and Play-Doh," said Mark Howell, a TSA regional spokesman. "You don't want it rewrapped in TSA tape. Even better, just mail it to your destination ahead of time."

For other tips, frequent travelers say they recommend others download flight apps to check-in ahead of time.

"We use the Delta app for everything, like our boarding passes, to tracking our bags when we're on the flight," said Dave Smet, 51, from Howell. "The family is taking off to Florida through the holiday."

Others, like Rebecca Darnell who signed up her husband on their way to Kona, Hawaii, used CLEAR identity screening for quicker screening.

"I love CLEAR and use it to get through in like three minutes. I just put my figure on the machine, and I'm already pre-checked," said Darnell, 34, from Redford Township.

Darnell said she also recommends flying on off-hours and placing everything in your carry-on.

"I think the busiest times to fly are usually Monday mornings and Thursday nights, especially for business people," Darnell said. "Thursday and Friday are the worst days to travel, especially when you add on holidays. So I plan around them."

Amtrak does not provide ridership projections, but it is coming off a record-setting year. There were 32.5 million customer trips, a year-over-year increase of 800,000 passengers.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said with both Christmas and New Year’s Day falling in the middle of the week, more passengers are expected to take off the entire week of those holidays.

“This is unlike Thanksgiving, where people start the holiday the day before, and it ends the day after,” Magliari said. “December holidays are different because of the different religious observances, and because they fall in the middle of the week, so we’re expecting people to take off the entire week.”

And he said, since New Year’s Day falls on a Wednesday, many people also are expected to take that full week off.

“The Sunday after Thanksgiving, historically, is our busiest day,” he said. “But that’s not to say December 23rd and 24th won’t be busy. We fully expect them to be, but it’s not the same.”