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Hassles and high costs won’t stop travelers

High gas prices and the hassles of air travel may put a damper on many vacations this summer, but don’t expect the Fourth of July weekend to fizzle out. Despite the likelihood of a long-term travel slowdown, millions of Americans are taking to the roads and skies over the holiday.

According to AAA’s annual forecast, 40.45 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more over the Fourth. That represents a 1.3 percent drop from last year and the first decline in 10 years.

The decline, however, may be muted because the Fourth falls on a Friday this year, making this a true holiday weekend. Instead of travel getting split between the weekend before and after a midweek Fourth, much of it will be concentrated in a single extended weekend.

AAA's Robert Sinclair expected traffic to build Wednesday and Thursday, and said, “others will take the day off on Monday and make a long weekend out of it that way.”

Hitting the road — just not as hard
According to AAA, more than 34.2 million Americans (almost 85 percent of the total) intend to travel by automobile, a 1.2 percent decrease from last year. That follows on the heels of the organization’s Memorial Day forecast, which predicted that the number of Americans traveling by car during that holiday would drop by nearly one percent.

Meanwhile, gas prices have climbed only higher since then. On Thursday, the average retail price for regular gas was $4.10 per gallon, according to AAA. That’s not only up 16 cents from Memorial Day, but $1.13 higher than this time last year. The federal Energy Information Administration projects the price will peak at $4.15 in August — which is not to suggest that people won’t travel, but rather, that they’ll modify their plans to counter rising costs.

According to a survey by Rand McNally, 66 percent of Americans who plan to take a road trip this summer say that rising gas prices have prompted them to change their plans. Almost three in five (57 percent) said they expect to cut back on the number of days and/or distance driven, but only 10 percent said they had canceled or will cancel their plans.

In fact, according to another survey — this one from travel-deal publisher — as many as 44 million Americans may travel over the holiday weekend. “Regional travel is much more in play this year,” says Travelzoo senior editor Gabe Saglie. Even with $4-per-gallon gas, he notes, “A three- or four-hour drive is still more cost-effective than getting a family of four on a plane.”

Packed planes, crowded terminals
For its part, AAA is forecasting that 4.54 million Americans will take to the air over the holiday. That’s a 2.3 percent drop from last year, which probably won’t bring much relief to travelers passing through busy airports. “The worst day will be Sunday,” says David Castelveter, vice president of communications for the Air Transport Association (ATA).

According to ATA, the nation’s airlines expect to carry 211.5 million passengers this summer, compared to the 214 million they carried in summer 2007. “That’s only marginally fewer passengers, which won’t affect load factors,” says Castelveter. And while ATA doesn’t break out figures for the Fourth of July weekend, he suggests the effect will be the same: “There won’t be a lot of empty seats over the holiday.”

Likewise, airport terminals will feel especially crowded as more families and other infrequent fliers take advantage of the first official holiday of summer. “Many of them don’t fly a lot and may have to refamiliarize themselves with security procedures,” notes Castelveter. “We’ve all been in that situation where you’re stuck behind someone who has to fumble for their ID.”

In response, TSA continues to expand its voluntary “Black Diamond” program, which is designed to let travelers select lanes based on their self-determined familiarity with the security process. The program is currently in place in 21 airports, with another 20 expected to come on line this summer.

Meanwhile, TSA recently announced it was also ramping up its random screening program, meaning travelers may face additional, unannounced security checks. The procedures may include rechecking IDs and boarding passes, conducting physical searches of carry-on luggage and testing for explosives, and they may be conducted anywhere in the terminal, including post-security.

Finally, be prepared for additional hassles as passengers deal with the airlines’ increasingly tight baggage rules. Depending on when tickets were purchased, most major airlines (except Southwest) will be enforcing their new fees for a second checked bag ($20–$25), with American requiring $15 for the first bag. (United and US Airways have matched American’s first-bag fee, although the fees won’t be implemented until after the holiday.)

All of which suggests that a proactive approach will be paramount. Says Castelveter, “Use the online services to check in before you leave home, have your liquids in a 3-1-1 bag and carry your medication with you. You don’t want to be caught in a lengthy delay with your insulin in your checked luggage.”