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.
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.
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.
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