Area gas prices
Gas prices rose by nearly 3 cents a gallon between Wednesday and Thursday and are on the rise across the region, but experts don't expect them to have a major effect on travel plans.
* Atlanta: $3.76, up nearly 25 cents from last week.
* Chattanooga: $3.61, up 13 cents from last week.
* Knoxville: $3.66, up 20 cents from last week.
* Nashville: $3.66, up 21 cents from last week.
Source: AAA Fuel Gauge Report
AAA Auto Club expects 33 million people to travel more than 50 miles this holiday weekend by automobile, airplane or other means of travel, nearly a 3 percent bump from 2011. Locally, those numbers are expected to increase even higher:
• Tennessee — 641,000, a 3.6 percent increase
• Georgia — 901,000, a 3 percent increase
• Alabama numbers unavailable
Labor Day travelers began trickling through Chattanooga's Interstate 75 rest stop Thursday morning, the first of what will likely be more than 1,000 visitors making a pit stop over the three-day weekend.
Cheryl Gongora, her husband and 2-year-old daughter were three of those travelers, headed north from Atlanta to visit family for the weekend.
"We chose today because we think [Friday] might be a little more busy," she said as her husband lifted their laughing daughter over his shoulder. "We're potty training, so we'll be making all the stops."
Fuel price watch group GasBuddy.com anticipates this weekend will bring the highest gas prices ever for this time of year. But despite projections and a sharp jump in gas prices over the last week, travel experts expect Gongora will be right.
A survey by AAA indicates 28.2 million people across the country will travel by car this weekend, a 3.1 percent jump over 2011.
Gongora wasn't happy to see prices jump — they're up nearly a quarter over last week in Atlanta — but fuel costs weren't affecting her plans.
"Unless gas is $7 a gallon, then maybe we would not travel," she said. "But 10 cents either way doesn't bother me."
Labor Day weekend is typically a major travel holiday, with the unofficial end to summer often the last chance for a family visit or weekend getaway. Millions across the Southeast won't let the chance slip away.
"Even when gas prices go up, people still take their trips," AAA regional spokeswoman Jessica Brady said. "It's a pretty big holiday."
Local tourism experts expect it will be a big holiday for Chattanooga hotels and attractions. The Scenic City is a three-hour drive or less for about 10 million people, placing it close enough for gas prices to be a small factor, but far enough for a destination vacation.
Despite a sluggish July slowed by extreme heat, Chattanooga has experienced some tourism growth so far this summer. Hotel revenue is up about 6 percent, and attractions overall are tracking similarly, according to Dave Santucci, vice president of marketing for the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"It's been a good year and good summer. We had a couple tough breaks with the weather, but we continue to grow," he said. "The economy's continuing to be tough. Gas prices continue to be high, but we're able to continue to grow as a city."
Rock City and Ruby Falls have had stronger than expected summers, up 5 and 7 percent, respectively. Meagan Jolley, spokeswoman for the attractions, expects almost 10,000 visitors at each over the weekend.
The Tennessee Aquarium has had a particularly strong summer. Attendance is up 10 percent over last year, an increase attributed to its 20th anniversary celebrations and new River Giants exhibit.
Holidays have sent more visitors to the aquarium every year. Memorial Day weekend and the Fourth of July were strong this year, a trend aquarium spokesman Thom Benson expects to continue.
"We've had a pretty good summer, so hopefully that will translate into a good Labor Day," he said.