By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/19/2009 10:32:31 AM ET 2009-05-19T14:32:31

Is your tank half empty or half full? With the Memorial Day weekend upon us — and the summer travel season not far behind — it would appear there’s a lot riding on your answer.

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Consider a pair of recent polls. In one survey , a measly 42 percent of Americans said they were planning to take a leisure trip this summer, mostly because they’re concerned about the economy. In the other, fully 95 percent said they were planning to do so, with almost half saying the economy isn’t impacting their plans in any way.

Between the two (sponsored by the Associated Press and Kayak.com, respectively), this traveler is 100 percent confused.

Mixed signals, but increasing optimism
Obviously, no one should be surprised that a media company and a travel company came to different conclusions — one seeks “eyeballs,” after all; the other, bookings — but the divergent data may also point to a bigger issue. We’ve been so battered by mixed signals and conflicting information for so long that we don’t know whether we’re coming or going.

The stock market is up. No, wait, it’s down. Consumer confidence is rising, but retail sales have slumped again. The housing market is showing signs of life, yet foreclosures just hit another record. And while fewer Americans lost their jobs last month — 539,000 vs. 663,000 in March — the unemployment rate rose and is expected to continue doing so. It seems like every time a “green shoot” of recovery pops up, it gets hit with a spritz of reality Roundup and dies on the vine.

Is it any wonder that we’re approaching the summer travel season with trepidation and that our plans are all over the map? Or that we’re looking closer to home, holding out for better deals and booking flights and hotel rooms closer to our departure dates? Or, for that matter, that two nearly simultaneous summer-travel surveys came to such contradictory conclusions?

Personally, I’m not buying the doom and gloom (everybody’s staying home!) or the rose-colored forecast (everybody’s hitting the road!). I suspect that the truth lies, as it usually does, somewhere in the middle and that a lot of would-be travelers are biding their time and weighing their options.

Apparently, I’m not alone. According to yet another recent survey, 38 million Americans remain undecided as to whether or not they’ll take a vacation this summer or early fall.

Undecided? Sure. Indifferent. Hardly? Last month, The Conference Board announced that its Consumer Confidence Index rose to its highest level in 2009. An especially sharp jump in the group’s Expectations Index suggests that consumers are starting to show increased optimism about the economy, an essential prerequisite to even thinking about going on vacation. Clearly, it will take time for that to translate into actual bookings.

At the same time, the travel industry has done an excellent job of convincing us to hold off on our travel purchases. It’s no coincidence that more companies are highlighting Web specials, weekend deals and those here-today-gone-tomorrow discounts. It’s ironic, but after years of training us to book early to get the lowest price, the industry is now offering some of its best deals to those who wait until the last minute.

How long that will last is unknown, but in the short term, the combination of good deals and increased consumer confidence is already having a positive effect. According to AAA, travel over the Memorial Day weekend is expected to increase by 1.5 percent this year, a shift that the group considers a “small but psychologically significant uptick.” Perhaps more people are starting to see the glass as half full than half empty.

Gas prices far below last summer's highs
In the meantime, the prognosis for the next few months is already looking brighter in at least one regard. With most economists calling for a slow and bumpy recovery, no one’s expecting a repeat of last year’s run-up in gas prices. (True, no one foresaw last summer’s jump, either — and any recession-led relief at the pump is strictly a dark-cloud/silver-lining sort of deal.)

Video: Low costs boost Memorial Day travel The good news, according to the Department of Energy, is that retail gas prices are expected to average $2.21 per gallon during the so-called summer driving season (April­–September), substantially below the $4.11 record they hit last July.

The bad news, according to AAA, is that motorists in much of the country were already feeling the pinch as the average topped $2.30 per gallon the week before Memorial Day, up a quarter in the last month alone.

As for the rest of the summer, the price will be a function of multiple factors, including global oil demand (currently weak), refinery output (currently constricted) and the recent switch to more expensive summer blends. As for its impact on your travel plans, that will be a function of whether you consider your wallet half empty or half full.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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