Memorial Day Travel: Amid record fuel prices, millions of trips planned

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More Americans are expected to travel this Memorial Day weekend than last year despite higher gasoline prices, higher airfare costs, soaring hotel prices, and a wave of coronavirus infections — a result of pent-up demand outweighing health concerns and price escalation, according to experts. industry say.

Surveys show average gas prices as low as $6 a gallon in some parts of the country and $4.60 nationwide — a 50 percent jump from last year — causing some travelers to move closer to their homes. However, many will look for less expensive hotels or reduce entertainment and dining out to save on a vacation, experts say.

“During these two years, we’ve missed family gatherings, weddings, proms — all those things with friends and family,” said Amir Elon, president of Longwoods International, a travel and tourism market research consultancy. “Now that the fear of coronavirus among travelers has subsided significantly – and despite inflationary pressures – people are determined to get out there.”

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Nationally, AAA expects 39.2 million A person — 8 percent more than last year and 92 percent from pre-pandemic levels — will travel during Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of what is expected to be a busy summer. Compared to last year’s weekend, AAA forecasts a 4.6 percent increase in car travel, 25 percent growth in airline travel, and a 200 percent jump in bus, train and cruise ship travel.

Meanwhile, the average ticket price for the lowest airfare is $184, up 6 percent from last year. Mid-range hotels charge $230 a night — 42 percent more — for their lowest price, according to AAA. Only daily car rental rates are down, down 16 percent from a year ago, when cars were scarce.

D.C. residents pay higher gas costs than the national average — $4.84 a gallon — but they’re still expected to pile up roads in the Washington area.

Maryland officials advise hitting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the beaches of the East Coast in the early morning or late evening. The Maryland Transportation Authority expects more than 330,000 vehicles to cross the bridge over the long weekend, about as much as Memorial Day weekends before the pandemic.

An ominous sign: Last weekend, days before the holiday, Sunday’s westbound backups reached 5.5 miles, the authority said.

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Memorial Day weekend last year saw the first major travel period after the coronavirus vaccines were distributed, but it was limited. Vaccines are widely available this year. Moreover, travel industry experts say, some people who put off travel have more savings to pay higher costs. Some also booked airline tickets and hotel rooms months ago, before prices went up.

An AAA survey in April found that more than 50 percent of DC residents said they plan to travel more this summer than last year, despite higher gas prices. More than half said they were less concerned about the pandemic, and about 1 in 3 said it would be their first significant summer trip since 2019. Although most said they didn’t take the price of gas into account when making plans, about 1 in 4 said it would be their first significant summer trip since 2019. AAA said they were taking fewer or shorter trips because of this.

“I think this year, especially with vaccines so readily available and so many people vaccinated, so many people have the desire to travel,” said Rajina Ali, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “It seems that the massive and pent-up demand for people to resume some kind of normality outweighs the costs.”

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Some motorists who drove on Thursday winced at the cost of packing. However, no one mentioned concerns about the pandemic or considerations of canceling plans due to gas costs. Many said that traveling seemed like something they had to do, despite the extra expense.

At a Shell station in Stevensville, Maryland, where regular gas was $4.49 a gallon, Amalia Dixon was running about $50 to fill the tank, even as her tank started a quarter full. Dixon, 61, said she and her daughter, Lena Fleville, 26, were driving to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, where Dixon was commuting from Silver Spring. The moving truck was not far behind.

“I had to move,” artist Dixon said of her trip. But I am constantly looking up gas prices, trying to find the cheapest one. …One of the things I look forward to in Chincoteague is riding my bike everywhere.”

Dixon said she also plans to drive to a family wedding in Maine in late July, but will likely cut back on eating out and other things in order to save.

She said, “I have to go.” “It will affect how I spend my money in other ways. I can’t spend money on other things if I have to use it for gas.”

Several recent surveys, including by travel advisors and industry groups, show that concerns about gas prices have overtaken those related to the coronavirus.

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In a recent survey conducted by The Washington Post School of Charity, 72 percent of Americans said they are “definitely” or “likely” planning a vacation this summer. About 6 in 10 said gas prices were a “key factor” in their plans, while about 1 in 4 indicated concerns about the coronavirus, according to the survey conducted in late April and early May.

In Maryland, an automatic increase in the gas tax will cause prices to rise starting July 1, adding 6.6 cents per gallon. The tax, which is linked to inflation and collected at the wholesale level, will rise from 36.1 cents a gallon to 42.7 cents.

The Democrats leading the state’s general assembly have not supported a special session to avoid the increase or introduce another temporary recess for the gas tax, saying such efforts offer marginal relief to motorists while starving the state of funds needed for roads, transit and bridges.

In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin (right) planned to suspend the planned increase in the gas tax of 26.2 cents per gallon and suspend the tax entirely for three months in protracted budget negotiations between the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Democratic Party. The Senate is subject to oversight. The General Assembly returned to Richmond on Wednesday to vote on a compromise budget bill — too late for Memorial Day motorists.

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The cost of filling plays a role in tourist venues.

Jessica Waters, a spokeswoman for Ocean City, described the proximity of the Maryland beach city — “less than a tank away” — from millions of residents in the capital, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

“Gas prices are higher, but a trip to Ocean City is still much cheaper than traveling to most other beach destinations,” Waters said. “It’s definitely cheaper than traveling by plane.”

However, airlines say they can expect large crowds. Reservations are up 3 percent compared to the same period in May 2019, but air travelers are spending 24 percent more, according to data compiled by Adobe Analytics and used by companies in the travel industry.

United Airlines said Memorial Day weekend will be one of its busiest holidays this year. The carrier said it expects 2.6 million people to travel between Thursday and Tuesday — a 50 percent increase from last year and nearly 90 percent of the number who traveled during the Memorial Day travel period in 2019.

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Delta Airlines said it will fly nearly 2.5 million customers over the weekend, an increase of 25 percent. However, the carrier on Thursday announced cuts to its summer schedule, saying it will cut nearly 100 flights per day between July 1 and August 7.

United, Delta and many other US airlines are still struggling with a staff shortage as they scramble to replace 50,000 workers who have left the industry during the pandemic. As a result, despite the increased demand, many airlines are flying shortened schedules as they try to avoid the kind of delays and cancellations that have upended the plans of tens and thousands of passengers this past summer and fall.

These dynamics – fewer flights combined with higher demand – are driving up ticket prices, putting flights out of reach for some.

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Los Angeles resident Ellie Romero, 25, who works in communications, said she’s been saving a trip to Atlanta this summer to visit family she hasn’t seen since the pandemic began. When she checked in in March, the round-trip airfare cost about $300. By the time she was ready to buy a ticket in late April, she said, she was shocked to discover that the lowest price had nearly tripled.

“I saw it and thought, ‘No way that could happen,'” Romero said.

Travel experts say history shows that gas price hikes, such as during the Great Recession and after September 11, 2001, and terrorist attacks, often shorten — but don’t stop — the great American road trip.

In a recent study, Eylon found that nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said higher gas prices would “impair” or “significantly affect” their travel plans in the next six months, including by making fewer or shorter trips. Only 6 percent said they canceled travel plans — just above the typical 5 percent cancellation rate for family emergencies, work requirements and other problems, he said.

“They will continue to travel,” he said. “They will just find ways to reduce their spending to reallocate their travel budget.”

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Larry Rosner, 70, of Myrtle Beach, laughed in apparent disbelief when asked how much it would cost to fill an RV while he and his wife, Darlene, 66, were headed to the Atlantic City area. Pay $159 at Shell Station in Stevensville on Thursday, though he started with the tank partially full.

Rosner estimated the gas total for the two-day trip to be between $600 and $700 — much more than last year, but likely less than what he would lose at the craps table in Atlantic City.

“I’m retired,” Rosner said. “What else am I going to do? … We’ll go have fun and don’t worry about it.”

But others said inflation halted the summer’s trip.

Megan Wagner, 40, who is unemployed, said she usually travels several times each summer from her home in southern Iowa to Wisconsin. But this year, she said, she’ll pass a nine-hour flight.

“Not only are gas prices going up, but food prices are going up, making them twice as bad,” Wagner said. “You either choose to go somewhere or you choose to eat, and this year I’m kind of cutting out.”

Erin Cox and Laura Fuzela contributed to this report.

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