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Memorial Day travel busiest in decades; what you need to know to tackle Chicago traffic

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CBS News Chicago Live

Memorial Day travel will be the busiest in two decades, and Chicagoans must plan for traffic delays on expressways and crowds at O'Hare International Airport. 

Triple A forecasts 43.8 million people nationwide will travel for the holiday, including 38.4 million by auto and 3.5 million by air. The rest will travel by bus, train, or even a cruise. In Illinois, about 2 million will travel, slightly higher than last year. That's not far off the record high of 2.2 million set in 2005. 

Experts say it will be the biggest Memorial Day holiday crunch in two decades as people have fully embraced post-COVID-19 travel.

Worst times to travel on Memorial Day

INRIX, a provider of transportation data and insights, said drivers leaving Thursday or Friday should hit the road early to avoid mixing with commuters. Travelers returning home on Sunday or Monday should avoid the afternoon hours when return trips peak.

For example, a trip from Chicago to Milwaukee on Sunday afternoon would take nearly 2.5 hours, an increase of 27% from regular travel times, according to INRIX.

Chicago travelers can also expect congested expressways heading to popular destinations in southwest Michigan.  

Chicago Traffic and Skyline at Dusk
Traffic on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago at dusk, with the downtown skyline behind. / Getty Images

Historically, travel times on the Kennedy Expressway spike, as it is a main route to O'Hare Airport. This year, the express lanes from Ohio Street to the Edens are closed for construction, adding to the traffic congestion.

Worst spots for traffic

CBS 2 traffic reporter Kris Habermehl said the worst "pinch points" will be anywhere along long-term projects.

In addition to the Kennedy, that would include the Tri-State Tollway work zone between O'Hare and Ogden, I-80 from New Lenox to Minooka, I-80/94 from Hammond to Gary and the Indiana Toll Road, which all have lane reductions, lane shifts and reduced work zone speed limits.

"With the overall increase in traffic volume, narrowing down specific times to avoid has been getting harder," Habermehl said. "Typically, the Memorial Day getaway starts on Thursday afternoon, with the first rise in volume. Midday Friday begins the second peak, with a homebound bump late Monday."

I-65 will be very heavy, too, as race fans head to the Indianapolis 500, which is on Sunday. 

Will airports be crowded? 

This will be the most crowded Memorial Day weekend at airports since 2005 when 3.64 million flew for the holiday as the travel industry finally rebounded post-9/11. 

Busy Airport Concourse
Passengers walking through airport concourse in O'Hare, Chicago, Illinois, USA. / Getty Images

Chicago will be no exception. According to the travel site Hopper, Chicago O'Hare has booked 801,000 departing seats over the weekend, with the busiest times between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.   

What is the average gas price?

The average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Illinois is $3.93, up a penny from last year.

In the Chicago metro area, it's much higher—$4.16—but that's four cents cheaper than last year. That means a one-tank trip would save a driver about 60 cents for a 15-gallon tank.

Lake Shore Drive roadwork

The Chicago Department of Transportation is patching South DuSable Lake Shore Drive segments between Roosevelt Road and 31st Street in both northbound and southbound directions.  

Currently, southbound lane closures will be in effect. Two lanes will be closed from 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. daily; three lanes will be closed during daytime working hours between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Suenos Festival Map in Grant Park

Annie Robillard

In Grant Park, the Suenos Festival runs Saturday and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. and features more than 20 Reggaeton and Latin artists. 

Now in its third year, the fest borders Lake Shore Drive, Roosevelt Road, and Columbus Drive, with the main entrances near Buckingham Fountain.

Suenos Festival

Street Closures

  • Balbo from Columbus to DuSable Lake Shore Drive: May 15th – May 30th
  • Columbus, from Ida B Wells to Roosevelt: May 23rd – May 27th
  • Balbo, from Michigan to Columbus: May 23rd – May 27th

Sidewalk Closures

  • Michigan, from Jackson to Roosevelt: May 25th – 26th
  • Balbo (both sides, from Columbus to DuSable Lake Shore Drive: May 15th – May 30th
  • Balbo (both sides), from Michigan to Columbus: May 23rd – May 27th
  • Columbus (both sides), from Roosevelt to Balbo: May 15th – May 30th
  • Columbus (both sides), from Balbo to Ida B Wells: May 23rd – May 27th
  • DuSable Lake Shore Drive (Southbound side), from Buckingham Fountain to Roosevelt: May 22nd – May 28th
  • Congress Plaza Dr, from Michigan to Columbus: May 25th – May 26th
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