Heavy traffic slows the northbound lanes of the 5 Freeway at the 14 Freeway… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)
Scrape the bugs off your windshield and check your radiator coolant because the next few months are stacking up to be one of the top summers for road trips in years.
With consumer confidence up, fuel prices down and frustration over airline fees growing, Americans are expected to hit the road in big numbers over the next few months, rolling to such hot spots as Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Lake Tahoe.
Travel experts and surveys conducted in the last few weeks point to a season of busy freeways and crowded roadside attractions.
"People are recession weary and are saying we have a God-given right to take a vacation and we are going to take it," said Andy Chapman, a spokesman for the North Lake Tahoe Resort Assn., where summer hotel reservations are already up nearly 50% compared with last year.
Three in four summer travelers said they would be taking a trip by car, up from 70% who said they planned to drive last summer, according to a survey of more than 1,200 Americans taken by the travel website TripAdvisor.
A survey by the travel website Expedia found that 14% of travelers said they were more likely to take a summer road trip this year than last year because of an improving economy.
"I think we are going to see a little more of those longer trips," said Jim Rogers, chief executive of Kampgrounds of America, a Montana-based franchise with more than 400 campgrounds throughout North America. "It's not going to be just the weekend trips."
Summer reservations at KOA campgrounds across the country are up 14% compared with the same period last year, and Rogers attributes the rise to declining fuel prices and rising confidence in the economy.
"It's not going to be a tsunami or a tidal wave, but it will be a definite wave," he said of the road trip trend.
At Lake Tahoe, Chapman said more visitors are expected to drive because vacationers are increasingly bringing outdoor gear such as paddle boards and mountain bikes, which can be expensive to load on a plane.
"The drive is also part of the vacation," he said. "You get to see some of the desert scenery on your way here."
For Mike Shaub, an aircraft maintenance manager at Edwards Air Force Base, road trips are a way to connect with his 12-year-old daughter, Liberty. The two drive each summer to Oregon for a fishing and camping trip.
"One of my favorite reasons to drive is the quote I often hear from my daughter: 'Dad? Can we stop there? That looks interesting,'" he said. "Things like that make me favor driving over a flight any day."
Colleen Cardas, the owner of a high-end audio supply company in Austin, Texas, plans to take a two-week road trip to New England with her boyfriend, Marc Phillips. The couple intend to visit audio equipment dealers along the way and hunt down the best hamburger joints in America, she said.
"We will be packing about 1,000 pounds of equipment," Cardas said. "It's always less expensive to drive."
High fuel prices are the biggest deterrent to travelers considering a road trip, according to the Expedia survey. So, declining gasoline prices may represent a green light for travelers hoping to hit the road this summer.
In the Los Angeles area, the average price for a gallon of regular gas is $3.99, which is about a nickel less than last week and about 20 cents cheaper than in the same week last year, according to the Auto Club.
"We see driving being a strong trend because it is the cheapest way to go if you have three or more people with you," said Marie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the Auto Club of Southern California.
If past years are any indicator, she said, gas prices should remain stable at least through August.
KOA and other roadside businesses expect the extra road traffic to mean more spending this summer.
Of those who plan to travel this summer, 53% said they would spend about the same amount as last year and 25% said they would spend more, according to the survey by TripAdvisor.
Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation's airlines, predicted 209 million Americans will fly this summer, up 1% from last summer. The trade group said most of the growth would come from travel on international flights.
For those who fly, the cabins will be more crowded and the tickets more expensive this summer.
The airline trade group predicts nearly 87% of airline seats will be filled this summer. About 79% were filled in the first two months of the year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The average price of a domestic airline ticket is expected to be up 4% compared with last summer, according to a study by the travel website Hotwire.