Following a summer of the lowest gas prices in more than a decade, AAA Mid-Atlantic expects about one in every eight Marylanders to hit the road for a Labor Day weekend getaway.
An estimated 732,000 people will head to the beach or the mountains or grandmother's house for summer's last hurrah despite a recent spike in gas prices, the auto club estimated, based on averages from the past two years.
Labor Day travel traditionally lags behind the more popular summer vacation holidays, and this year is no different, with the projected travel about 9 percent less than on Memorial Day weekend and 17 percent less than for the Fourth of July.
Gas prices, the economy and the time of year come into play when families decide whether to skip town for Ocean City or some other vacation destination, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Cooper Averella said.
Ocean City expects 250,000 to 280,000 visitors over the holiday weekend, spokeswoman Jessica Waters said.
"We're very optimistic that we're going to have an outstanding holiday," she said.
The weather, too, could prove to be a boon — or a tropical curse — on the traditional last weekend of summer.
"When the weather's beautiful, people may decide to take a quick getaway," Cooper Averella said.
She said that before the National Weather Service revised its prediction for Tropical Storm Hermine, currently threatening Florida's Gulf Coast. Once expected to track back out to sea over North Carolina, the storm now looks as if it might follow Interstate 95 up the East Coast, potentially covering much of Maryland with a soaking rain Saturday and Sunday.
Late Wednesday afternoon, the storm was about 350 miles off Florida's panhandle, expected to strike late Thursday or early Friday. After that, meteorologists predict it will cross Georgia and the Carolinas, losing some strength and tropical characteristics as it moves over land but nonetheless potentially bringing heavy rain to Maryland by the weekend.
The storm track forecast remains uncertain, meteorologists said. They had expected it to churn just off the coast, but a westward shift in forecasting models on Wednesday could suggest a bigger disruption for the busy travel weekend.
Gas prices in Maryland have risen 12 cents in the past month to an average of $2.23 for a gallon of regular as of Wednesday, due to increased crude oil prices and some refinery issues, Cooper Averella said. Despite the rise, it remains 14 cents less expensive than this time last year.
This weekend is expected to feature the state's lowest Labor Day prices at the pump in 12 years.
"Despite the slight bump we've seen in prices at the pump recently, we're still on target to pay the lowest Labor Day gas prices since 2004," Cooper Averella said.
Prices could fall again to below $2 per gallon as the summer driving season ends and oil companies begin selling winter-blend gasoline, which is cheaper to produce, she said.
As he filled up his tank with $2.25-per-gallon gas in Baltimore this week, Danny Levine said he'd noticed the price increase over the last month. But Levine, 28, of Federal Hill, said he does his best to keep the price fluctuations in perspective.
"I still have flashbacks of when it was four-and-a-half-dollars a gallon," he said.
Hitting the beach to catch the last rays of summer isn't his priority over Labor Day anyway — he has multiple fantasy football drafts this weekend.
Jeff Thompson, 31, said he doesn't really think of Labor Day as a travel weekend.
If he and his wife did take their 2-year-old boy and 6-month-old girl on a trip for the weekend, he'd be expecting traffic, though.
"Everyone else is traveling to the places we'd be traveling to," Thompson said.
Thompson said his family is more likely to spend the holiday weekend at backyard barbecues and back-to-school events in their Southwest Baltimore neighborhood. Going away for a holiday weekend just a week or two after the first day of school can be complicated for parents working to get their kids back into an academic mentality, he said.
"It's hard to get them into a rhythm and then break them out of it for a couple of days for Labor Day," Thompson said.
Starting school after the holiday is preferable, so families could get away and come back fresh, he said.
He might get his wish. At a news conference on the Ocean City boardwalk Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot announced an executive order requiring public schools to start the school year after Labor Day.
"Everybody's back to school already," Levine lamented. "It used to be the end of summer. Now it's just a long weekend."
Steve Williams, 31, of Butchers Hill is heading to Long Island with his girlfriend to visit his brother and sister-in-law for the weekend.
They won't be hitting the road though; they're taking the train.
"Because I imagine traffic will suck," said Williams, who usually goes out of town for the long weekend, either to his brother's in New York or to his parents' home in Columbus, Ohio.
The Maryland Transportation Authority also expects heavy traffic at its tolled facilities, particularly the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It is recommending that people aim to travel to and from the Eastern Shore at off-peak times, which it described as before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m. on Friday and Sunday and before 7 a.m. and after 5 p.m. Saturday.
Marion Lesniewski, 48, a carpenter who lives in Canton, said he expects to spend the weekend in Baltimore with his three grandsons, ages 1, 3 and 6 years old.
Lesniewski said he's traveled to Florida twice over the summer and spent plenty of time at the beach.
"We're going to take it easy, enjoy some good food," he said.
If he goes anywhere this weekend, it might be a half-hour drive to Gunpowder Falls State Park's Hammerman Area Beach in Middle River, he said.
Larry Stone, 70, of Harbor Court will drive 156 miles with his wife to the couple's house on the New Jersey shore.
Stone, who described himself as semi-retired, said gas prices and the holiday weekend didn't have much bearing on the decision to drive up.
"We go up there all the time," he said.
Skip Brinkman, 68, splits his time between Baltimore and Crystal River, Fla., spending the summer in Maryland and the winter in Florida.
He'd also rather not deal with thousands of other Marylanders on the road this weekend.
"I'm retired, so every day is a holiday," he said. "I can go anytime."
Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.