Wisconsin holiday travel expected to bounce back from 2020, not at pre-pandemic levels yet

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Whether in the air, on train tracks or on the highway, Wisconsinites are set to experience the busiest travel season since the start of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically dropped Thanksgiving holiday travel significantly in 2020 for air, train and car travel. Officials say travel rates are bouncing back, but not quite reaching pre-pandemic levels from 2019.

Air travel

At Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport, familiar sights of the holiday travel season were in abundance, including loved ones reuniting.

Lala Lor of Milwaukee said she was waiting for her sister outside Concourse D who was visiting for Thanksgiving from Atlanta.

"Oh my gosh, I was going to cry this morning just to like see her," Lor said. "So, I'm super excited."

Martel Tripp was headed for Las Vegas for the holiday. He and his family arrived at the airport early to try to avoid another holiday travel tradition: long lines.

"It was a bit of a rush," Tripp said. "Like, no matter how early you get here it's still going to be a bit of an issue because you still got to make sure the bags are alright and still following protocols and things of that nature."

Flights in Milwaukee are up 50 percent from 2020 but still down from 2019 by 7 percent. Across the country, the Transportation Safety Administration expects travel to be up by 80 percent, with an estimated 20 million travelers to be screened. That is why TSA wants travelers to do their part to make sure they don't bring prohibited items, which can cause delays at security checkpoints.

"I just want passengers to think about the steps they can take to keep that line moving," TSA public affairs specialist Jessica Mayle said in a news conference at Mitchell International. "Any time your bag triggers an alarm we have to stop and find that prohibited item, that's what's slowing down the process."

Prohibited items can be found on the TSA website, here.

Train travel

At Milwaukee's Intermodal Station, Amtrak said it is seeing passenger numbers slowly approach pre-pandemic levels, however a spokesman said complete recovery is not expected until 2023.

Still, the Hiawatha line taking passengers to and from Milwaukee and Chicago is packed, according to Amtrak.

"We were seating sellouts on these Hiawatha trains last weekend," Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman, said at a news conference. "And I'm pretty sure we're going to see sellouts of the Hiawathas this coming weekend too, it's just that time of year."

Car travel

On Wisconsin's roads, the dip from the pandemic was not as severe in 2020 with car travel down about 7 percent. AAA said travel on highways is expected to be near pre-pandemic levels. But the biggest headache may be from higher gas prices as opposed to traffic congestion.

"We've kind of plateaued, at least here in Wisconsin, with our prices not really changing too much over the course of the last month," said Nick Jarmusz, the director of public affairs for AAA Wisconsin. "But [gas prices are] still about $1.20 above the statewide average that we saw in this state last year [and] about 70 cents what it was pre-pandemic in 2019."

Jarmusz said traffic congestion is likely to spread across Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. But TSA and Amtrak said Sunday is expected to be the busiest day for both as people return home from the holiday.

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