Forecasts of sunny skies are combining with falling gas prices and an apparent "pent-up demand" for getaways to put Maryland on course for its busiest Labor Day weekend for travel since the end of the recession.
AAA Mid-Atlantic is projecting that 678,000 Marylanders plan to travel 50 miles or more this holiday weekend — a 2.7 percent increase over the number who traveled last year.
If AAA's projections hold true, Labor Day would be the first strong holiday travel weekend of the summer. Similar surveys before Memorial Day and the Fourth of July showed year-over-year declines in the number of Marylanders who planned to travel.
Now, AAA spokeswoman Ragina C. Averella said, Marylanders are planning to get away.
The AAA survey doesn't look beyond people's travel plans, but it can be a measure of the strength of the regional economy.
"The intention to travel, which means the intention to spend, this is a perfectly respectable economic indicator," said economist Anirban Basu, founder of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group Inc. "The pace of recovery in Maryland remains modest but is progressing nonetheless."
Using travel plans as a measure of economic recovery, Maryland is doing reasonably well but lagging nationally. Last week, AAA's national survey predicted a 4.2 percent increase in travel across the United States over Labor Day weekend.
Basu said the difference reflects the fact that Maryland's economy was outperforming the national average a year ago.
Most of this weekend's Maryland holiday travelers — an estimated 590,000, or 87 percent — are expected to go by car. That 2.8 percent increase from 2012 could be good news at Maryland's top resorts, Ocean City and Deep Creek Lake.
Jessica Waters, communications manager for Ocean City, said businesses there expect a strong weekend.
"The weather looks wonderful, which is always a help," she said. "We expect we will see 'No vacancy' signs throughout town."
The National Weather Service is forecasting mostly sunny skies with highs of about 80 from Thursday to Monday.
Waters said a good Labor Day weekend would help offset "a slow start to the season" after a cool, wet spring. Since then, she said, business has been "amazing."
Sarah Duck, director of tourism for the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, said revenue from lodging taxes has been up about 5 percent this year.
"We anticipate Labor Day to continue the trend we've seen all summer," she said.
In addition to the road trippers, 52,800 Marylanders are expected to travel by air, and 34,600 by bus, boats and other forms of travel, for respective increases of 1.1 percent and 2.7 percent over last year, AAA found.
Jonathan Dean, spokesman for Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, predicted a typically busy late-summer weekend at BWI. He said travelers who haven't flown out of the airport recently might notice some changes, including a new checkpoint serving concourses A, B and C and a secure connection that lets passengers move between B and C without passing through security a second time.
The statewide numbers follow national estimates from AAA Travel, which predicted last week that 34.1 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more this weekend, the highest number of Labor Day travelers nationally since the recession ended in 2009.
"While the overall financial picture remains mixed, economic indicators have improved from last year and have been trending upward during 2013," Averella said in a statement. "As a result, there appears to be pent-up demand by Marylanders to get away for the last summer holiday as many stayed put for the first two major summer holidays."
While Maryland's expected travel increase lags behind the national figure, it is in line with other states in the region.
Basu said the state's weak showing relative to the national projection also reflects some of the region's exposure to federal budget problems.
"This is probably in response to sequestration, though there are other factors at work," he said. Basu said federal workers and civilian defense employees are likely feeling less secure in their jobs, while those in the financial, distributing and manufacturing sectors are likely to feel more confident.
As of Monday, gas in Maryland was $3.55 per gallon, which is a cent less than it was last week, 13 cents less than last month and 16 cents less than this time last year, according to AAA. That decrease comes in spite of the 3.5-cent increase in the state gas tax that took effect July 1.
The 900,000-member leisure travel organization predicted that gas prices would remain steady through the holiday weekend.
Basu disagreed, saying travelers could see an uptick over the weekend because of rising tensions in Syria. But he said the price in the days leading up to travel, when people are making plans, can be more important than the weekend price.
Gas prices have remained relatively stable even as crude oil prices have soared past $100 a barrel. Averella said consumers have benefited from the lack of recent hurricane-related shutdowns of refineries or serious disruptions in the distribution system.
Lower gas prices will serve Marylanders well this weekend, as those who are getting out of town are also traveling farther.
About 56 percent of Maryland travelers intend to travel between 50 and 400 miles round trip, compared to 43 percent last year. The average round-trip mileage is 592 miles, a 23 percent increase over last year.
Many of those traveling will be single adults or couples. With kids back in school, AAA predicts that families will account for just 27 percent of travelers.