As thousands of Bay Area travelers prepare to hit the road this Labor Day weekend, they have a lot to contend with -- a hurricane named Earl expected to disrupt air travel along the East Coast, a new look at the San Jose airport and major roadwork along interstates 80 and 680.

But, hey, at least the Bay Bridge isn't closed for the entire weekend, as it was in three of the past four years.

The state auto club, AAA, predicts more than 4 million Californians will travel this weekend, an 11 percent increase from a year ago. And 3.5 million will go by car, traveling 50 miles or more from their homes.

With the economy continuing its deep slump, what gives? Gas prices are down seven cents over the last month, not enough to coax more people into their cars.

"There are mixed feelings out there," said AAA spokeswoman Cynthia Harris. "A good sign is that people are traveling more and that's because there is some optimism that we haven't seen in quite a while. But the last two years were pretty dismal."

People traveling by air may have the greatest concerns. As Hurricane Earl swirls through the Atlantic today, airport delays could stretch from New York to California.

"Stay in touch with your carriers," said Michael McCarron, a spokesman at San Francisco International. "With possible hurricane action on the East Coast, weather could come into play."

Long-term parking at the San Francisco airport should fill up by noon Friday, and drivers can get vouchers to park in the short-term garage for a discounted rate. That's also true at airports in San Jose and Oakland, but officials there don't expect many problems since air travel is way down from 2007 -- more than 25 percent at Mineta San Jose International Airport, where daily flights fell from 190 in July 2007 to 125 this year.

"Always looking at the bright side," San Jose airport spokesman David Vossbrink said, "that eases congestion."

One concern: the new parking system in front of Terminal B, which opened several weeks ago. There are only 340 public parking stalls on the first level, with the other six floors reserved for 3,000 rental cars. There will be plenty of spaces available in Terminal A, but it's a good walk or a shuttle ride to Terminal B.

Most travelers, however, will be throwing the kids and dog into the family vehicle and motoring down a highway. National parks, San Diego and Lake Tahoe are favorite destinations.

Usually Caltrans suspends major paving and construction jobs on holidays. But there are exceptions this year.

In order to meet the Sept. 20 opening of the new toll lane along southbound I-680 through the Fremont area, nighttime work will take place all weekend and affect traffic in both directions.

Friday night, one northbound lane will be closed at 10 p.m., with a second lane being shut down an hour later. Sunday and Monday nights, a southbound lane will be closed at 9 p.m.

"We'll monitor traffic all weekend," said Caltrans engineer Sam Wang. "In case there's an adverse impact, we'll modify our plans."

The other road worry is along I-80 from the Nevada state line to Truckee, where a major paving effort has narrowed lanes from 12 feet to 11 feet and delays of 45 minutes can be expected. Caltrans recommends avoiding traveling between 2 p.m. and 9 p.m. today and Friday and between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday.

That's solid advice anywhere.

"Just don't go when everyone else does, which is in the afternoons Thursday, Friday or Monday," said traffic reporter Joe McConnell. "I wouldn't leave any later than noon if you have the choice, and both Thursday and Friday will likely be equally bad."

And on the return home Monday, especially bad will be northbound Highway 101 from Prunedale to San Jose and westbound I-80 through Fairfield.

Drivers can also expect company on the road. The California Highway Patrol will conduct a maximum enforcement period beginning Friday and lasting through Monday. Last year during the Labor Day weekend, CHP officers made 1,417 arrests for driving under the influence.

"If we find you driving impaired we will arrest you, no exceptions," CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow said.

If you want to get away, San Francisco may be the spot. This is usually a calm weekend there, with few tourists and major events planned. Plus the Giants are on the road and the 49ers play tonight.

And it may not be as bad along Highway 17 or Highway 92 heading to the beach if, as predicted, cool weather rolls in this weekend.

No problem for Tim Christ of Los Gatos. He and his family may fire up the barbecue and stay home.

"Most years we try to avoid travel on holiday weekends," Christ said. "That's the only sure way to beat traffic around here."

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.

LABOR DAY TRAVEL TIPS
  • San Jose airport: Go to www.flysanjose.com for recent terminal and parking changes.
  • Call 511 for road reports throughout the state.
  • Spot a traffic problem? Report it to KCBS at 415-495-5227 or KLIV at 408-575-1600.
  • Prepare for overnight construction along Interstate 680 from Fremont to Milpitas.
  • Been meaning to get to San Francisco? This weekend is the time to beat the crowds. Few tourists, few big events and the Giants are in Los Angeles.
  • Gas prices are falling to $3.08 a gallon in California, down seven cents from a month ago.