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Gas Prices Fall, but More Staying Home on Holiday

Travel: Big drop in fuel costs isn't enough to get a wary public on the road. Many won't fly either.

November 17, 2001|DAREN BRISCOE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It would seem to be a fact of life: When gas prices go down, travel goes up.

But despite the dramatic drop in gas prices, Southern Californians are less likely to drive anywhere this holiday season, experts and ordinary folks say.

"When times are good and gas is cheap, people hit the road and do some exploring," said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "Now, the gas prices might say go, but the spirit might say reconsider."

For many, the spirit might prevail, despite gas prices that averaged $1.30 a gallon in the Los Angeles area Friday, nearly 42 cents lower than last year at this time, according to a weekly survey by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

In November 1998, prices dipped to $1.19, and the Auto Club recorded record levels of air and car travel.

But in an already weak economy, there is no guarantee of a repeat performance, especially when coupled with public uneasiness about terrorism.

"I'm not going anywhere this season," said Kathleen Davney, shopping at a Costco in Irvine. "I just don't want to take the risk right now. There's no compelling reason to go anywhere, especially with my 3-year-old daughter."

The Auto Club, which tracks state and national patterns by polling its members about travel plans and destinations, predicts a 6% drop in travel by any mode nationally and in California this year.

A larger percentage of those who do travel in Southern California, however, are expected to drive rather than fly, according to Carol Thorp, an Auto Club spokeswoman. Still, there will be fewer people on the road, she said.

"We're expecting a drop of about 1.6 million [car travelers], but we don't know if the gas prices are going to affect that," Thorp said. "It's a hard call."

Port Hueneme psychologist Jack Sharpe and his wife are among the crowd that opted for car over plane. Before September, they had been looking forward to a nontraditional Thanksgiving, flying to Thailand and Taiwan on a quest for silver and beads.

"This thing in Afghanistan certainly has made things different," he said. "It's made us more cautious and made us want to stay closer to the family."

Sharpe spent Friday picking up road maps and congratulating himself on finding gas for $1.19 a gallon. Next week, the Sharpes will drive to San Diego to spend the holiday with their children.

While they and others enjoy the lower pump prices, that alone probably won't have much effect on holiday travel plans overall, said Fred Sater, a spokesman for the California Division of Tourism.

"It certainly won't hurt, but, historically, gasoline prices don't affect travel that much," Sater said. "People adjust their budgets, maybe eating out more than when gas is high, but they'll still travel either way."

And like turkey, football games and leftover cranberry sauce, some things about the holiday just don't change.

"Thanksgiving is still the biggest driving holiday," said Thorp of the Auto Club. "If you're on the road, there's going to be plenty of people out there with you."

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