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Despite high gas prices, Southern Californians plan to hit the road over Memorial Day weekend

About the same number of Americans will travel this summer as last year, but most plan to scale back their spending to offset high fuel prices, according to recent surveys.

May 24, 2011|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • A traveler totes luggage as he makes his way down a sidewalk at Los Angeles International Airport for the Memorial Day weekend in 2010. Despite rising ticket prices, more Americans said they planned to fly for the Memorial Day holiday and for trips this summer than last year.
A traveler totes luggage as he makes his way down a sidewalk at Los Angeles… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

With the summer travel season getting underway this weekend, many Southern Californians are concerned about the high cost of gasoline and airline tickets. But they are still planning to hit the road at about the same rate as last year.

Dennis Lanfre, a businessman from Manhattan Beach, plans to drive to Bass Lake north of Fresno for four days of boating with his son and friends. It is an annual Memorial Day holiday event.

But to save money, Lanfre said, he will fill up the boat's gas tank at a roadside station instead of paying the extra $1.50 to $2 a gallon to fill up at the lake's marina.

"We will for sure cut down on the wake-boarding," he said. "The gas prices just don't allow us to do as much as we like."

And the trend is not limited to Southern California or to the Memorial Day weekend: About the same number of Americans will travel this summer as last year, but most plan to scale back their spending to offset high fuel prices, according to recent surveys.

The number of Southern Californians who will travel over the Memorial Day holiday will be about the same as last year, with some 2.62 million people taking an overnight trip at least 50 miles from home, according to an annual survey released Monday by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Across the country, about 86% of Americans said they planned to travel during the summer, up from 83% who said they traveled last summer, according to a survey of 2,000 people by the travel website TripAdvisor.

But because of high gas prices, 18% of those surveyed said they plan to take fewer trips by car this summer, 12% plan to take shorter trips, 5% said they would fly instead of drive and 5% said they won't travel at all. (Survey respondents were able to select more than one option.)

In addition, 40% of those surveyed by TripAdvisor said they would travel less than 200 miles this summer, 37% said they would be willing to travel at least 200 miles and 23% said fuel costs wouldn't affect their driving plans.

Those attitudes may change with fuel prices slowly dropping in the last two weeks after soaring for the last five months or so. Still, gas prices are more than a dollar per gallon higher than a year ago.

Analysts attribute the fluctuations in gas prices to tension in the Middle East, tornadoes and flooding in the U.S. and signs of falling demand.

Gas prices began to rise in December and continued to soar until late April, when the prices seemed to peak, reaching $4.24 a gallon for regular self-serve gasoline in the Los Angeles area, according to the Auto Club.

In the last few weeks, gas prices have decreased gradually to an average of about $4.12 a gallon in Los Angeles on Tuesday, and some fuel industry analysts predict that gasoline prices could drop to about $3.50 a gallon.

"As it gets closer to $4 a gallon, that may encourage more people to travel because that seems to be the tipping point," said Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Higher fuel prices have also pushed up airline ticket prices since the start of the year. Still, more Americans said they planned to fly for the Memorial Day holiday and for trips this summer compared with last year.

The average domestic airfare rose to $336 in 2010, up 8.4% from 2009, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But airline industry analysts predicted that the rates might increase this summer as much as 15% over last summer because of growing demand and rising fuel prices.

Still, among those who planned to travel for the Memorial Day weekend, 35% said they would fly, compared with 29% who said they flew during the holiday in 2010, according to the TripAdvisor survey.

The higher airfares may not deter vacationers from flying because the country's economy is improving and many Americans who put off flying during the recession are ready to travel again, said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., the trade group for the airline industry.

"As the economy continues to rebound, there has been some pent-up demand," he said.

Jim Engle, a retired department store executive from Sierra Madre, is flying to Denver with his wife for the holiday weekend. But he said he was flying only because he had enough frequent-flier miles saved to partially offset the cost of the flight. If not for the frequent-flier miles, Engle said, he would have considered driving to Denver.

And even with the frequent-flier discount, Engle said, he and his wife were packing only one suitcase to save on the baggage fee. "We could afford to do two bags," he said, "but it's the principle of the thing."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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