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Memorial Day weekend travel forecast to fall

2.3% fewer Southern Californians will be heading out of town this year compared with a year earlier amid concern over unemployment and gasoline prices.

May 19, 2009|Hugo Martin and Peter Pae

Worries over higher gasoline prices and double-digit unemployment rates will drive down Memorial Day weekend travel among Southern Californians.

A survey released Monday by the Automobile Club of Southern California predicts 2.5 million Southern Californians will travel this Memorial Day weekend, a 2.3% drop from last year's holiday period, which marks the traditional start of the summer vacation season.

The report signals more bad news for the struggling travel and tourism industry. The annual Memorial Day travel projections have not shown a robust rise since 2005.

In California, gasoline prices jumped an average of 10 cents in the last week for a gallon of regular self-serve gasoline to $2.524, according to the Department of Energy's weekly gas station survey released Monday. Still, that represents a 36% drop in price from the same time last year.

Gas prices statewide are climbing faster than nationwide. The national average price jumped 6.9 cents a gallon in the last week to $2.309, the government survey said. Phoenix had the lowest average gas price in the nation with $1.99 a gallon, while Chicago had the highest at $2.63, the survey reported.

"Lower gas prices and plentiful bargains offered by travel providers are also helping to keep trips affordable, which is probably why we haven't seen an even greater dip in holiday travel," said Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the auto club.

Among Southern Californians, Las Vegas ranked as the top destination for the Memorial Day weekend, followed by San Diego, San Francisco, Arizona and California's Central Coast, according to the auto club's survey.

Last year, Mexico ranked among the top five destinations for Southern Californians but was bumped off the charts by the recent outbreak of the H1N1 flu, which has killed 68 people in Mexico. Most major cruise lines halted stops to Mexican ports last month and only one, Carnival Cruise Lines, announced plans to return this summer.

Still, travel industry experts say all indications signal that, despite a tough economy, travelers are resolute about taking time off this Memorial Day weekend and are saving money by staying closer to home or cutting back on expenses.

Royal Cochran, a federal employee from Inglewood, said he normally visits family in Chicago or Seattle during the holiday. But this year he plans to save money by staying in Southern California, visiting friends and perhaps attending a barbecue.

"I'll just be hanging out," he said.

But in Southern California, other factors -- such as nightmare holiday traffic -- also play a role in travel trends.

Mike Horelick, a screenwriter from Santa Monica, said he and his wife, Lina, and their two young daughters are staying close to home, meeting friends and visiting local parks and beaches, rather than making a trek to the Bay Area to visit his family.

"Typically, on Memorial Day weekend, I'm afraid of driving in traffic," he said.

"We don't have a lot of money to go far, so this is the most convenient and inexpensive thing to do."

Although gas prices have dropped significantly over the last year, the rates have been rising the last few weeks as oil refineries continue to ramp up production in anticipation of the summer driving season, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst with Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J.

Still, driving is the nation's favorite mode of transportation. Of those who say they will be traveling during the holiday weekend, 83% will travel by automobile, about the same percentage as in 2008, according to the survey.

The average round trip in the U.S. this Memorial Day weekend is forecast to be 620 miles by air, automobile and other modes, down about 20 miles from 2008.

Nationwide, the auto club's survey of about 75,000 households predicted 32.4 million Americans would travel, an increase of 1.5%.

Among those surveyed, Las Vegas topped the list of most popular destinations for the Memorial Day holiday, according to Priceline.com, an online travel service that tallied hotel booking requests on its website. It marked the first time that the city was No. 1 since 2005.

Customer satisfaction may partly explain why air travel is expected to decline about 1% over the Memorial Day weekend after dropping 21% from 2007 to 2008, according to the auto club.

The airline industry scored 64 on a 100-point scale for the first quarter of 2009, a 3% improvement but still one of the lowest-scoring businesses in an index of U.S. customer satisfaction that was released today by the University of Michigan.

High volatility in fuel prices, indifferent service, labor problems, congested airports and financial challenges have plagued the industry for years.

American Airlines, the busiest carrier at Los Angeles International Airport, stood out by going in the opposite direction. Its score dropped to 60 from 63. Southwest Airlines led the index for the 16th straight year, climbing to an all-time high of 81, up from 78. United Airlines was unchanged with a score of 56.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

peter.pae@latimes.com

Times staff writer Nathan Olivarez-Giles contributed to this report.

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