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Holiday Hitting the Road in Spite of Speeding Prices

It's expected to be the busiest Labor Day weekend of driving in nine years. There's a post-9/11 trend of taking shorter trips.

August 29, 2003|Mai Tran and David Haldane | Times Staff Writers

Ken Byrtus isn't a typical traveler. He doesn't mind paying hundreds of dollars to fill up his tank.

An entrepreneur who owns motels and RV parks in California and Oregon, he recently spent $1.3 million on a brand-new Marathon Coach. It cost him more than $400 Thursday to fill up the 250-gallon diesel tank of the state-of-the-art, 45-foot extendable RV with the 42-inch plasma TV, full-size mirrored refrigerator, accent lighting, automated closets, granite kitchen counters, remote-controlled blinds and stacked washer-dryer.

In preparing for a Labor Day weekend with his family at Newport Dunes, however, Byrtus, 53, didn't flinch at the price of the fuel. "We get away so ... seldom that we don't really think about it," he said. "I just spent $1.3 million, so I don't care about the price of the gas."

Though in command of a heftier expendable income than most, Byrtus is part of a national and local trend this holiday weekend. Despite rising gas prices, travel officials say, a record number of Southern Californians are expected to take to the roads. "It will be busiest Labor Day holiday in nine years," said Jeff Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Statewide, he said, about 4.8 million people, more than 3 million of them from Southern California and a 1.7% increase from last year, will spend part of the long weekend driving. "We believe that people are just in the mood to travel," Spring said. Continuing a trend that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and fueled by the sagging economy, he said, travelers are staying closer to home and relying more on their cars.

"Part of it, we believe, is that there are some good travel bargains out there," Spring said. "Hotels and resorts have been trying to kick-start a travel and tourism arena that's been slow because of the economy."

He said this year's favorite destinations for Southern Californians are, in descending order, San Diego, Las Vegas, Central Coast beaches, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco.

The region's airports also expect moderate to heavy traffic. "We are expecting really heavy weekend traffic and are staffing for it," said Victor Gill, a spokesman for Burbank Airport. "I think the main issue is for people to build in a little time."

As the holiday neared, though, most of the buzz was at places like Newport Dunes, where children built sandcastles and swam.

"It's our last vacation," said Sandy Bartok, 63, of Placentia, who is staying with her daughter and 8-year-old grandson in the family's 25-foot Fleetwood motor home. "It brings an end to the summer before we get back to routine."

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Times staff writer Jose Cardenas contributed to this report.

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