DOWNTOWN — Thousands of residents renewed travel regimens this Memorial Day weekend, pouring onto highways and into airports as the nation officially ushered in the summer travel season.
Be it falling gas prices, enticing hotel and car rental rates or a slight uptick in consumer confidence, the Southland was expected to see nearly an 8% increase in the number of residents traveling over the holiday weekend, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.
About 2.1 million people, representing roughly 85% of Southland travelers, were projected to reach their destinations by car, an increase of 8.3% over last year, according to the auto club.
Memorial Day travel in the past few years has suffered locally and nationally, with double-digit unemployment and the continued fallout of the economic recession giving life to the term "staycation."
Gail Bukowski and Ryan Dietrich, of New Hampshire, spent the last few holiday weekends traveling in state. Both government workers, they took day trips and kept it simple, as Dietrich put it.
"We didn't want to spend as much on traveling," he said. "After a couple years of that, it's nice to get away."
The pair this weekend visited Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, strolling through the gift shop before making their way into the summer heat.
"It's beautiful," said Bukowski, who is staying with friends in Burbank. "Definitely a change of pace."
The number of Americans traveling over the holiday weekend was projected to jump more than 5% from 2009, with about 32.1 million taking to their cars or airplanes. In California, nearly 4 million people were estimated to make Memorial Day getaways, rising 7.8% from last year. While 3.3 million were to travel by car, almost 400,000 would fly — a 5% percent jump.
Helen Maldonado and Nadine Cribbins, both from Greater Sacramento, hoped to catch a deciding seventh game between the Phoenix Suns and their beloved Los Angeles Lakers. But when the Lakers reached the NBA Finals by defeating the Suns in six games, the pair said their backup plan didn't sound too shabby, either.
"We're going shopping, Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills" Cribbins said. "We said all along that if they won in Game 6 we were just going to have fun."
The weekend was a sports getaway of sorts for Maldonado, who was celebrating a birthday.
"It's been a lot of fun," Maldonado said. "You know the commercials where they tell you the activity and the price? For me, it's hotel: $500. Rental car: $90. Time out with my aunt: priceless."
Air travel among those flying out of the Southland was projected to increase by 227,000 passengers.
The rise in activity would be a boon to Bob Hope Airport.
Total passenger traffic in March was down 3% from the previous year, dragging the year-to-date figure down to more than 2%, airport records show.
Last year's number of passengers fell to 4.6 million, the lowest in eight years, and down 13% from 5.3 million in 2008. Passenger volume peaked at more than 5.9 million in 2007.
While the three-day weekend is not typically a bellwether for the airport, industry experts said it would likely indicate to what extent people were willing to spend money this summer. Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the auto club, said consumers are seeking more value for their travel dollar than before the recession, but weekend projections indicate many might be taking long-postponed vacations.
Customers filing up at gas stations Monday in Montrose, La Crescenta and Glendale described mild holiday commutes, including jaunts up and down the coast, from Ventura and Santa Barbara to San Diego and Mexico.
Others opted to stay home, attending family barbecues and Memorial Day events across the foothills and tri-cities.
Glendale residents Patricia and Carvel Gay, a retired staff sergeant from the California National Guard, gathered outside Glendale City Hall for a Memorial Day ceremony.
Carvel Gay presented the colors while his wife of 49 years looked on.
"It will be 50 years come June," Patricia Gay said.
"No traveling for us. We leave that for the kids."