July 4th holiday travel: This is the worst time to hit the road

Expect long lines at airports and even longer drives this Independence Day.

Whether it’s by plane, train, or car, AAA is predicting record-breaking numbers this Fourth of July week – with nearly 71 million Americans expected to travel at least 50 miles from home.

With the Fourth of July falling on a Thursday, travel began at the start of the week and is only ramping up.

"The summer travel season is off to a hot start, and we expect to set new travel records on the road and in the sky during the week of Independence Day," said Debbie Haas, Vice President of Travel for AAA – The Auto Club Group. "There will be 3.5 million more travelers than last year. That means even more people at airports and popular attractions like beaches, lakes, and theme parks."

With airlines seeing a seven percent increase in holiday travel over last year, the pace was picking up Wednesday at O’Hare International Airport.

Between Wednesday, July 3 and Monday, July 8, both O’Hare and Midway International Airports will welcome a combined 1.75 million passengers, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA).

"This is a huge travel weekend," said United Airlines Managing Director of Customer Service & Recovery Michael Covey. "Luckily for us, I think the weather is looking really good this week!"

In celebration of red, white, and blue – Chicagoans are packing their bags and hitting the roads, rails, and skies.

"Family, friends, barbecue, fireworks, it’s the Fourth of July!" said Carmecia Hawthorn.

For those traveling by car – drivers had nothing but company on the roads Wednesday.

"Drivers in large metro areas can expect the worst traffic delays on Wednesday, July 3rd, as they leave town, and Sunday, July 7th, as they return," said Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX.

Experts with AAA estimate road travel on the Fourth of July will be busiest between the hours of 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

"I am driving to Kentucky on Friday night," said Paige Lawrence.

It will be a tight turn for Lawrence, who returned from Toronto on Wednesday, but despite the busy travel day she and others experienced ‘clear skies.’

"It wasn’t too hectic, it was manageable," said Lawrence.

"Easy, no problem at all," said Radek Klauda, who is visiting from South Carolina.  

"It was perfect, it was absolutely perfect," said Jeanette Allen, who just returned home from San Diego.

"It was really a breeze, we were actually pretty surprised," said Jenese Porter, who is visiting from Florida.  

In Terminal 1 at O’Hare, United Airlines is gearing up for a packed schedule.

Popular destinations this Fourth of July include Miami, Orlando, and Las Vegas.

"Chicago is going to have almost 60,000 seats leaving every single day for the next 10 days to handle the demand," said Covey.

Unveiled Wednesday, United is now utilizing AI to get customers up-to-the-minute information – including possible weather delays and radar images – through text messages, emails, and the United app.

"Sometimes we see customers who will line up to speak to our gate agent, just to find out information we could have given to them automatically," said Covey. "Sometimes the weather can be at their local origin, sometimes it can be at their destination, and sometimes it can be in between – so giving customers that information at their fingertips is just another way that we are trying to build trust with our customers so they understand what their travel experience is going to be that day."

In Illinois, 4.1 million people will be traveling for Independence Day, and 3.7 million of them are doing so by car.

"Give enough time to get to your destination safely so that you’re not speeding, you’re not doing any type of distracted driving," said Molly Hart, AAA spokesperson. "We want everyone to enjoy this time with their family and friends."

Looking ahead, if you’re returning from your weekend away on Sunday, Hart suggests getting on the road before 11 a.m.

"That’s when it’s going to be the most congested, and we almost always say this for every holiday – get up, and go," said Hart.

To help ease some of the traffic, the Illinois Department of Transportation is re-opening lanes that were closed for construction. Non-emergency closures will be suspended until 11:59 p.m. Sunday; however, there are still work zones to be mindful of across the state.

AAA estimates they will respond to 800,000 stranded motorists nationwide over this holiday travel period – a reminder for motorists to pack an emergency car kit and prepare your vehicle for the trip.