Americans hitting the road, watching their wallets

/ Source: The Associated Press

This Memorial Day weekend Americans will be skipping the souvenir T-shirt.

More travelers are expected to hit the road than have since the Great Recession. But they'll be keeping a tight grip on their wallets thanks to higher gas prices. The typical family plans to spend $692, a decrease of 14 percent from last year's $809.

"You'll see people eating sandwiches out the cooler instead of going into a restaurant," says Susanne Pelt, spokeswoman for the South of the Border roadside attraction in South Carolina.

AAA projects 34.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home — a slight increase of 100,000 travelers from last year and the highest number since 2007. But those who do make the journey will be spending a lot less, AAA and its survey partner IHS Global Insight say, based on interviews with 325 Americans who plan to travel for the holiday.

Rising gas prices are on the minds of 40 percent of travelers, with many planning to take shorter trips or otherwise conserve money. That might mean picking a Holiday Inn Express over a Holiday Inn or driving to a free beach instead of an amusement park.

But most refuse to abandon their vacation altogether.

"Americans really believe a vacation is a right," says Joseph A. McInerney, CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. "It's not a luxury."

And it's not just higher gas prices that families have to deal with.

Rates at AAA three diamond hotels are expected to increase 5 percent from a year ago to $148 a night. Cheaper two diamond properties are up 10 percent to $109.

"We are seeing some folks who are saying they have to pinch pennies to make the trip," says Paula Werne, spokeswoman for Holiday World in the southern Indiana town of Santa Claus.

With the stock market up and the economy generally better than a year ago, not everybody is scrimping and saving.

AAA predicts that 2.93 million people will board an airplane over the Memorial Day weekend, up 11.5 percent from last year despite higher airfares. The airlines have hiked airfares seven times since the start of the year. The average cost of a ticket is up more than 10 percent from last year.

That spike in air travel has also driven up the total distance families are expected to travel to 792 miles. That's 27 percent greater than last year's average travel distance of 626 miles.

Increased air travel is a sign that people at the higher end of the income scale are faring better. Those with incomes above $50,000 a year make up 69 percent of those who plan to travel, according to AAA. Last year, they were just 58 percent of the total.

The reason: higher gas prices take up a larger share of lower-income families' household budgets.

As Memorial Day weekend approaches, pump prices are at their highest level in three years. That's because oil rose 35 percent from mid-February through late April.

AAA conducted its survey from April 19 to April 23. Since then, gas prices have fallen. The average retail price slipped 8 cents in the past two weeks. Further declines are expected. That could help hotels, resorts and restaurants who count on summer tourists.

Last year, the price of gas fell 20 cents a gallon from the time of AAA's survey to Memorial Day. AAA had originally predicted 32.1 million would travel. Ultimately, that number was 34.8 million.

Still, gas prices are above $4 a gallon in nine states and the District of Columbia. That plays a large part in people's vacation planning.

"Gas prices are much more psychological than financial for most people," says Steve Carvell, associate dean for academic affairs at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.

Americans are paying an average of $3.91 a gallon at the pump — $1.05 more than last year. That's an extra $37 for a family driving 800 miles over the weekend.

"For most people, that's not going to make or break a vacation plan," Carvell says.

Brad Garner, chief operating officer at travel firm at STR Global, says people will find a way to make trips work.

The extra cost to fill up the family car over the holiday weekend equates to "a pizza and a six-pack of beer," says Garner.

Many businesses are playing into that physiology, with hotels and tourist attractions once again offering gas cards to guests.

The Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum about 100 miles to the south recently started a joint effort to encourage travelers to drive to the two museums, stopping at several cities along Lake Michigan along the way.

Bob Desh, executive director of the first museum says he wants tourists to look at the area differently.

"This is kind of a one-tank weekend trip along the coast," Desh says.