Memorial Day 2016: What you need to know

Updated 4:30 PM EDT, Sat May 28, 2016
President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day 2015 at Arlington National Cemetery.
President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day 2015 at Arlington National Cemetery.
PHOTO: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Story highlights

More than 1.2 million Americans have died in war since the Civil War

The weather will be mostly cooperative this year, but travel woes could still arise

(CNN) —  

Only one holiday honors fallen American veterans, evokes family barbecues and marks the unofficial start of summer.

From weather forecasts to safety hazards and ideas for last-minute plans, here’s what to know for Memorial Day 2016:

How to travel

Be patient. If you thought the recent nightmares at airport security lines were bad, just wait (even more).

This summer, air travel is expected to draw the most people ever, with 220 million expected to fly. And officials say the security line problem won’t ease until at least mid-June.

5 ways to deal with security line rage

Now the good news, especially if you’re planning a road trip: Expect the lowest gas prices since 2005, AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins said.

“The market remains well supplied, and the relatively lower cost of crude oil should keep summer prices lower than last year,” he said.

The weather will likely cooperate

For most of the country, Mother Nature will play nice this weekend.

The only trouble area will be the coastal Southeast. Heavy rain and fierce winds will pummel beaches in the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said.

“If you’re heading to the beach for the holiday weekend, it could be wet and windy (with) dangerous surf conditions,” he said.

The rest of the East Coast and part of the Plains and Midwest will likely see scattered storms.

Aside from that, the rest of the country will probably enjoy pleasant seasonal weather.

What to remember

With all the barbecues, vacations and retail sales celebrating Memorial Day, it can be easy to forget the holiday’s real purpose – honoring American service members who died in combat.

Numbers of Americans who died in war

  • 620,000: Civil War*
  • 116,516: World War I*
  • 405,399: World War II
  • 36,574: Korean War
  • 58,220: Vietnam conflict
  • 383: Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm
  • 4,424: Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • 73: Operation New Dawn
  • 2,349: Operation Enduring Freedom
  • *More than half the U.S. deaths from the Civil War and World War I were from disease.

Memorial Day’s roots go back to 1866, when residents of Waterloo, New York, formally recognized those who died during the Civil War. Businesses closed. Residents decorated soldiers’ graves.

Two years later, Gen. John Alexander Logan officially proclaimed May 30, 1868, as Memorial Day in honor of fallen Union soldiers.

For years, Southern states had a different Memorial Day to recognize the Confederate dead, but now they observe both. The Confederate memorial day is on various dates in April, May and June; Texas holds its Confederate Heroes Day in January.

In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May.

How to stay safe

While Memorial Day kicks off the unofficial start of summer, it also marks the start of a much more sobering season: it marks the start of the worst time of year for traffic fatalities.

A new report by the National Safety Council estimates that 439 Americans will be killed on the road this weekend, the highest number since 2009 and about 100 more than in 2014. (The final number for 2015 is not yet known.) Another 50,500 will be seriously injured, the report predicts.

Another record was set last week at American airports. The TSA reported finding 74 firearms in carry-on bags – 65 loaded and 18 with a round chambered – between May 20 and 26.

The hazards aren’t just on the road, of course. They can also be in the water. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 80% of public swimming pools, lazy rivers, hot tubs/spas and water playgrounds had at least one violation when inspected.

That’s not to say the health experts don’t want you to swim in public places. The CDC just wants you to check inspection reports before you do.

Another big summer safety hazard: Food-borne illnesses caused by bacteria that love the outdoors and the summer heat.

Ground beef and pork should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; ground chicken and turkey to 165 degrees, according to Melinda Wilkins, director of the online science master’s program in food safety at Michigan State University.

Bacteria also can easily thrive in bowls of potato or pasta salad. Wilkins suggests keeping foods that are supposed to be cold in containers set on ice.

Where to go

Chances are you already have plans. But if you don’t, and want to get away, we’ve got a list of this year’s top 10 U.S. beaches (according “Dr. Beach,” otherwise known as professor and coastal expert Stephen P. Leatherman).

At the top of the list is Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Oahu, Hawaii.

Can’t get off the mainland? Eight of the other beaches are on the continental United States.

What to eat

Memorial Day is the second most popular holiday for grilling out, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. The most popular is Independence Day.

If you’re in charge of the grill, make sure you don’t bungle your burger or screw up your steak.

Grilling vs. barbecuing: What’s the difference?

But just because grills will light up across the country doesn’t mean your diet is torched.

Americans are fatter than ever, CDC finds

The unofficial start of summer also means a plethora of healthy foods are now in season. Bring some zucchini, cherries and sweet corn to the cookout to add healthy options and feel less guilty the next day.

8 delicious summer foods that are good for you, too

CNN’s Chris Boyette, Kelly Wallace, Carina Storrs, Amy Roberts, Lindsey Knight and Katia Hetter contributed to this report.