After staying close to home last year, Southern Californians plan to shake off their recession fears by hitting the road in bigger numbers this Memorial Day weekend.
In fact, Southern Californians are mobilizing for weekend trips at a greater rate than the rest of the nation, according to a national survey released by the American Automobile Assn.
"Remember what the recession did to travel? It crushed it," said Marie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the Auto Club of Southern California, which provided survey results for the region. "This is a partial climb back."
During the Memorial Day weekend, an estimated 2.5 million Southern Californians are expected to travel at least 50 miles and stay overnight. That's an increase of 7.8% over the same time last year. Nationwide, 32.1 million vacationers will travel over the weekend, an increase of 5.4% from the same weekend last year, according to survey.
Nationally, weekend vacationers will cut spending to an average of $809 per person this year from $1,052 last year, according to the survey conducted for AAA by IHS Global Insight, a Boston economic analysis firm.
The survey did not break out vacation spending trends for Southern California. But in the Western states, travelers will spend, on average, $1,052 this weekend, compared with $1,010 last year, according to the survey.
Auto club members are also booking vacations further in advance. Montgomery said the advanced bookings are a sign that travelers are optimistic that they will be able to afford trips in the future.
"We can see anecdotally that business is much better," she said.
The preferred mode of transportation in Southern California is still the car. This Memorial Day weekend, 85% of Southern California vacationers will travel by car, with about 9% traveling by air and 6% by rail, bus or cruise ship, according to the survey. Those are roughly the same percentages as last year.
Gas prices should drop or remain steady in the next few weeks.
On Thursday, oil prices plunged nearly 8%, dropping to their lowest level in about 10 months, and experts say the drop should keep gas prices from spiking during the Memorial Day weekend.
Jeffrey Spring, another Auto Club spokesman, said that Southern California has not seen the jump in gasoline prices that typically takes place around May. The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline in the Los Angeles area was $3.09 this week, down from $3.13 a gallon last week, he said.
"There is nothing to indicate that there will be a significant jump in the next week or two," he said.
Among travelers in the Western states, the most popular activities for the holiday weekend are dining (84%), shopping (66%), visiting friends and relatives (60%) and visiting museums and art exhibits (39%), according to the survey.
And although the survey suggests that vacationing Americans feel more optimistic about the economy, many regular travelers are still scaling back vacation plans.
Scott Vigil of Encinitas, a sales director for a technology company, said he normally takes his family of five to Maui for about eight days each year. But because of the uncertain economy, he is planning a road trip through the Southwest this summer to see family and visit the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.
As for this holiday weekend, he wants to avoid the crowds by taking his family to the beach near home, he said. "Because I live in Encinitas, there is no reason to go anywhere else."