December 4, 2022

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Memorial Day travel: Amid record-high gas prices, millions plan trips

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More Americans are expected to travel for the Memorial Day weekend than last year despite record-high gasoline prices, costlier airfares, higher hotel rates and a wave of covid infections — the result of pent-up demand outstripping health concerns and escalating prices, industry experts say.

Surveys show that gas prices averaging up to $6 per gallon in some parts of the country and $4.60 nationwide — a 50 percent jump from a year ago — have caused some travelers to stick closer to home. However, many will seek less expensive hotels or cut back on entertainment and eating out to afford a getaway, experts say.

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“For these two years, we’ve missed family gatherings, weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations — all these things with friends and family,” said Amir Eylon, president of Longwoods International, a travel and tourism market research consulting firm. “Now that the fear of covid among travelers has significantly subsided — and despite inflationary pressures — folks are determined to get out there.”

Nationwide, AAA predicts 39.2 million people — 8 percent more than last year and 92 percent of pre-pandemic levels — will travel over the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of what it expects to be a busy summer. Compared with last year’s holiday weekend, AAA expects a 4.6 percent increase in car travel, 25 percent growth in airplane trips and a 200 percent jump in travel by bus, train and cruise ship.

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Meanwhile, the average ticket price for the lowest airfare is $184, up 6 percent compared to a year ago. Midrange hotels are charging an average $230 per night — 42 percent more — for their lowest rate, according to AAA. Only daily rental car prices are down, falling 16 percent from last year, when vehicles were scarce.

D.C. residents are paying higher gas costs than the national average — $4.84 per gallon — but are still expected to jam Washington-area roads.

Maryland officials advise hitting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Eastern Shore beaches 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 the same as pre-pandemic Memorial Day weekends.

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

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Last year’s Memorial Day weekend marked the first major travel period after the distribution of coronavirus vaccines, but they were limited. This year, vaccines are widely available. Moreover, travel industry experts say, some people who put off traveling have more savings to put toward higher costs. Some also booked plane tickets and hotel rooms months ago, before prices surged.

An April survey by AAA found that more than 50 percent of D.C. residents said they planned to travel more this summer than last year, despite rising gas prices. More than half said they were less worried about the pandemic, and about 1 in 3 said it would be their first significant summer trip since 2019. Though most said they didn’t consider the price of gas when making plans, about 1 in 4 said they were taking fewer or shorter trips because of it, AAA said.

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“I think this year, especially with vaccines being readily available and many people being vaccinated, many people have a desire to travel,” said Ragina Ali, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Overwhelming, pent-up demand for people to resume some kind of normalcy seems to be outweighing the costs.”

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Some motorists who headed out Thursday winced at the cost of filling up. However, none mentioned concerns about the pandemic or considerations to cancel plans because of gas costs. Traveling, many said, felt like something they needed to do, despite the added expense.

At a Shell station in Stevensville, Md., where regular gas was $4.49 a gallon, Amalya Dixon bristled at the $50 to fill up, even with her tank starting at a quarter full. Dixon, 61, said she and her daughter, Lina Flefel, 26, were driving to Chincoteague Island, Va., where Dixon was moving from Silver Spring. The moving van wasn’t far behind.

“I had to move,” Dixon, an artist, said of her trip. “But I’m constantly looking at gas prices, trying to find the cheapest one. … One of the things I’m looking forward to on Chincoteague is riding my bike everywhere.”

Dixon said she also planned to drive to a family wedding in Maine in late July, but she’ll probably cut back on eating out and other niceties to save up.

“I have to go,” she said. “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 on gas.”

Several recent surveys, including by travel consultants and industry groups, show that concerns about gas prices have surpassed those about the coronavirus.

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In a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll, 72 percent of Americans said they “definitely” or “probably” plan to take a vacation this summer. About 6 in 10 said gas prices were a “major factor” in their plans, while about 1 in 4 cited concerns about the coronavirus, according to the poll taken in late April and early May.

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

Democrats who lead the state’s General Assembly did not support a special session to stave off the increase or offer another temporary gas tax holiday, saying such efforts offer marginal relief for motorists while starving the state of money needed for roads, transit and bridges.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) plans to suspend a scheduled increase in the 26.2 cents-per-gallon gas tax and to suspend the tax altogether for three months have stalled in protracted budget negotiations between the Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate. The General Assembly returns 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 up is playing into tourism pitches.

Jessica Waters, a spokeswoman for Ocean City, touted the Maryland beach town’s proximity — “less than a tank away” — from millions of residents in D.C., 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 certainly cheaper than airfare.”

Even so, airlines say they are expecting big crowds. Bookings are up 3 percent compared with the same period in May 2019, but air travelers are spending 24 percent more, according to data collected by Adobe Analytics that is used by companies in the travel industry.

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

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Delta Air Lines said it will carry roughly 2.5 million customers over the weekend, a 25 percent increase. Even so, the carrier on Thursday announced reductions to its summer schedule, saying it would cut roughly 100 flights per day between July 1 and Aug. 7.

United, Delta and several other U.S. carriers are still grappling with staffing shortages as they scramble to replace the estimated 50,000 workers who left the industry during the pandemic. As a result, despite greater demand, many carriers are flying pared-down schedules as they try to avoid the kind of delays and cancellations that upended the plans of tens and thousands of travelers last summer and fall.

Those dynamics — fewer flights combined with higher demand — are pushing 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 had been saving for a trip to Atlanta this summer to visit family she hasn’t seen since the pandemic started. When she checked in March, round trip airfare cost about $300. By the time she was ready to buy a ticket in late April, she said, she was stunned to discover the lowest fare had nearly tripled.

“I saw that and thought, ‘No way that’s happening,’ ” Romero said.

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

In a recent study, Eylon’s firm found that almost 60 percent of those surveyed said rising gas prices would “impact” or “greatly impact” their travel plans in the next six months, including by taking fewer or shorter trips. Only 6 percent said they were canceling travel plans — slightly above the 5 percent cancellation rate typical for family emergencies, work demands and other problems, he said.

“They’re going to keep traveling,” he said. “They’re just going to find ways to reduce their spending to reallocate their travel budget.”

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Larry Roessner, 70, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., laughed in apparent disbelief when asked how much it cost to fill his RV as he and his wife, Darleen, 66, headed to the Atlantic City area. He paid $159 at the Shell station in Stevensville on Thursday, even though he started with the tank partially full.

Roessner estimated gas for the two-day drive would total $600 to $700 — far more than last year but probably less than he might lose at a craps table in Atlantic City.

“I’m retired,” Roessner said. “What else am I going to do? … We’re going to go have fun and not worry about it.”

But others said inflation has put a summer trip off limits.

Meggan Wagner, 40, who is unemployed, said she usually travels several times every summer from her home in southern Iowa to Wisconsin. But this year, she said, she’ll pass on the nine-hour drive.

“Not only are the gas prices going up, food is going up, too, which makes it twice as bad,” Wagner said. “You either choose to go somewhere or you choose to eat, and this year I’m kind of cutting back.”

Erin Cox and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.