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Holiday travelers to opt for rail, bus

August 23, 2008|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Fewer travelers are expected to fly or drive for the Labor Day holiday, with more opting instead for trains and buses as the weak economy and high fuel prices alter the vacation habits of Americans.

In its annual Labor Day forecast, AAA projected Friday that fewer Americans would travel more than 50 miles for the end-of-the-summer holiday. About 34 million Americans are expected to travel during the long weekend, down about 1% compared with last year. It would mark the first drop since 2006.

The decline is expected to be slightly larger among Southern Californians -- down 1.4% compared with last year -- mainly because gasoline prices are still higher in the region than almost anywhere else, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California. This week, the average price for self-serve regular gas in the region has been about 30 cents higher than the rest of the nation.

Las Vegas is the top destination for Southern Californians, followed by San Diego and the Central Coast, marking the first time in recent memory that most local travelers are planning trips within the state.

"They're taking trips closer to home because of high gas prices and a housing market that has been worse than other parts" of the U.S., said Jeffrey Spring, spokesman for the Auto Club.

Nationally, the vast majority of travelers, or more than 83%, are expected to drive to their destinations, while 11.5% plan to fly and 5% will hop on trains, buses, motorcycles and cruise ships.

But the number of travelers who will take their vehicles on the road is expected to decline 1.1% to about 29 million, while those planning to fly are seen dropping 4.5% to slightly below 4 million passengers.

More Americans are expected to try alternative modes of transportation such as a train or bus. Those numbers are seen jumping 12.5%.

"More travelers concerned about the economy, gasoline prices and rising airfares are opting to travel by train, bus, motorcycle and cruise ship to their holiday weekend destinations," said Robert L. Darbelnet, president of AAA. "This trend points to a desire on the part of the American public to seek alternatives to flying and driving to enjoy the traditional end-of-summer vacation."

Fuel prices are about 40 cents a gallon less than during the Fourth of July holiday but are still 91 cents more than a year ago, AAA said. The national average for self-serve regular gasoline was hovering at $3.70 a gallon Friday.

The travel projections are in line with similar forecasts from the airline industry, which said this week that it expected passenger traffic to drop more than 5% for the Labor Day holiday.

In addition to gasoline prices, airfares are significantly higher than last year, according to Live Search Farecast, an air travel search website. Labor Day fares are up 25% compared with a year ago. Passengers at Los Angeles International Airport are doing a little better, with the cost of flights there rising 19%.

The website is warning travelers of even higher fares for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, which are expected to be up 35% and 31%, respectively, compared with last year.

"This holiday season may well be the perfect storm for airfares that sends travelers running for cover," said Joel Grus, an airfare analyst for Live Search Farecast. "The combination of high fuel prices, airline capacity and route cuts means holiday travelers may easily spend upward of $100 more per ticket than last year."

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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