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updated 9/3/2010 10:22:58 AM ET 2010-09-03T14:22:58

Tough times can't keep down the American instinct to throw a good party. Despite their thin wallets, millions of Americans will spend big this weekend on a final summer fling — like a big Labor Day road trip or cookout.

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In fact, the parties and vacations could be their own indicator of economic recovery: With many households more flexible about spending and traveling this summer, it's a good sign that the average American family is enjoying a stronger economic position this year than last.

Slideshow: Labor Day by the numbers

On the road again
Americans are certainly more willing to spend on time away from home. The American Automobile Association predicts that 34.4 million people will be traveling at least 50 miles away from home this year over the Labor Day weekend — a nearly 10 percent increase from last year. The 2010 Labor Day holiday travel period is defined as Thursday, Sept. 2 to Monday, Sept. 6.

Most of those travelers — 91 percent or 31.4 million people — will be traveling via car to their destinations, according to a AAA report, which was conducted by IHS Global Insight. But airlines are seeing a bump, too: Five percent of weekend travelers will fly to their destinations, or 1.62 million people, up from 1.54 million last year.

"It is encouraging to see more Americans planning to travel to visit family, friends and exciting vacation destinations," says Glen MacDonell, director of AAA Travel Services.

Traveling this weekend? How do the roads and airports look?

Opening their wallets
Holiday travelers won't be spending big bucks, but they are spending a little more than last year. AAA projects that median spending for the holiday will be $697, up about 7 percent from last year's median of $650. Their top three expenditures? Dining (63 percent), shopping (47 percent) and visiting with friends and relatives (43 percent), according to AAA.

There will likely be a few other costs, too. In a study conducted by Worthington, Ohio-based BIGresearch, 62.8 percent of Americans said they expected gas prices to go up over the holiday weekend.

Though gas prices usually rise during any holiday, Americans won't be discouraged from traveling to a celebration, said Pamela Goodfellow, senior analyst at BIGresearch.

Video: Will Earl leave your weekend plans awash? (on this page)

"Back when gas prices were upwards of four dollars a gallon, many people were really worried about budgets," Goodfellow said. "But over the past few years, we've changed our travel routes a little bit, we're taking just a weekend trip instead of longer vacations."

Drivers should be especially careful on the road this weekend. Labor Day had the second-highest fatality rate of any holiday in 2008, with 544 average fatalities per year since 1982, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Marking the occasion
For the first Labor Day celebration in 1882, Peter J. McGuire, a Carpenters and Joiners Union Secretary, organized a parade of 10,000 workers in New York.

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Today the federal holiday — which is meant to honor the 154.4 million individuals over the age of 16 in the U.S. labor force — is most widely celebrated with an outdoor cookout.

"During summer holidays, it's much more fun to cook a meal outdoors with relatives or with your friends," said Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association spokeswoman Leslie Wheeler. "Because it's more expensive to go out to a restaurant, people are opting to stay home and have friends over for a cookout instead. Barbecues are easy, fun and people think the food tastes better."

In fact, Labor Day is the third most popular occasion to barbecue, with 55 percent of all American households expecting to bring out the grill for the holiday, according to HPBA's State of the Barbecue Industry report. (On the most popular occasion to host a barbecue — the Fourth of July — Americans spent nearly $2 billion on cookouts alone, according to BIGresearch.)

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End of the season
Summer doesn't end — meteorologically speaking — until Sept. 22, several weeks after Labor Day. But many households keep with the yearly tradition of enjoying the unofficial end of the season over the three-day holiday weekend.

They're just taking more care this year about how they do it. "People will travel and celebrate anyway, but prices have fluctuated so much over the past couple of years, people are still going to be careful about how much they spend," says Goodfellow.

© 2012 Forbes.com

Video: Will Earl leave your weekend plans awash?

  1. Closed captioning of: Will Earl leave your weekend plans awash?

    >>> director of the national hurricane center , bill read . good morning.

    >> good morning. how are you?

    >> i'm doing well. the question is, how busy are you? is it time to breathe a sigh of relief, sir?

    >> not really, but it is looking a little bit clearer as to what the trend will be. i've got the longer trend of the satellite. you can definitely see that it was a well-structured eye and circular wind field. if it skewed more to the east, if that trend continues, the worst of the winds will stay off to the east. again on the forecast track, i want to show that we're still too close to call. this forecast is almost right down the line on verifying. that brings it awfully close to the islands of nantucket, martha's vineyard and cape cod to completely rule out some serious impacts from maybe hurricane force winds later today, tonight and early tomorrow morning .

    >> okay. so, you were saying hurricane force winds. do we know how strong those winds might be for nantucket and cape cod , how dangerous they might be?

    >> well, at the present time , i would think we would be right on the cusp of a category 1. so, in the 75 to 85 miles an hour, perhaps some higher gusts, if there's some pretty good squalls with that.

    >> i'm trying to remember the last time the northeast was threatened by a serious hurricane, and i can't remember when. why is something that's so rare happening this year, sir?

    >> well, we may think they're rare, but they do commonly occur and this is a fairly similar scenario, of one bending around the coast. it was just 1991 , which i guess for the younger people was a long time ago. hurricane bob took a very similar track from off cape hatteras and came across with 100-mile-an-hour winds right through cape cod . before that, gloria in '85. so, yes, you go through periods. i was in houston and we had gone 23 years without a hurricane and we're thought of as a much more frequent visitor from hurricanes.

    >> bill read , thank you. one of the factors is also that the water is a little warmer, a couple degrees warmer this year, helping earl maintain its strength. thank you so much this morning.

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