The end of the summer road trip?
If anything could kill the great American road trip, you'd think high gas prices would do it.
If you think that, though, you don't know Americans.
Far more than mere fuel prices affect people's road trip plans, according to AAA spokeswoman Heather Hunter. Researchers at the auto club's economic and financial forecasting partner, IHS Global Insight, also factor in macroeconomic trends in employment, household net worth, asset prices, stock indexes, interest rates and the housing market.
These factors affect how people feel about their wealth and thus how willing they are to spend money on relative luxuries like travel. Other variables directly related to travel, including the prices of airline tickets and hotel stays, also can affect how many people take a driving vacation.
The auto club won't release its predictions for Memorial Day road travel for a couple of weeks, but a slowly improving economy — and the higher cost of airplane tickets — may well mean more people taking road trips this summer, even in the face of higher gas prices.
When I asked my Facebook fans whether gas prices were affecting their road trip plans, their answers ran the gamut. The responses included:
'We're going anyway'
Alan Ganger of Spokane, Wash., has done the math, and it still favors "hitting the road," he said.
The Ganger family hasn't had a vacation in six years, and it wants to join a family gathering 500 miles away that's been planned for a couple of years. If Ganger assumes gas will cost $4.25 a gallon, that will add only 7.5% to the overall cost of the trip, compared with when gas was $2.50 a gallon. If gas rose to $5 a gallon, the vacation's cost would increase 10.7%, he said.
'I'm planning to save more'
Nancy Pawlowski of Detroit already had put aside money for her family's summer trip and expects to "save a little more cash for gas now."
"I would not let the price of gas cancel my vacation plans," Pawlowski said. "We all need a break away from home."
'We'll take shorter trips, closer to home'
Libby Rosebaugh of Mankato, Minn., is cutting her spending "across the board," which means vacationing closer to home. The north shore of Lake Superior is a big draw for people in her area, as is Valleyfair, an amusement park about an hour north. The area also hosts several music festivals.
"I'll likely spend free time in any of our parks, as well as working on my tennis game," Rosebaugh said.
Susan Wells of Fort Dodge, Iowa, is planning "mini-vacations" throughout the summer, driving only "as far as we have to in order to get to the best bike trails."
'We're going to carpool'
ToniAnn Mannino Frothingham of Atlanta takes an annual trip to Anna Maria Island in Florida, where she and her husband rent a house with their four grown daughters.
"In the past my husband and I would drive down first, then the kids would follow in their own cars," Frothingham said. "This year we all discussed it on Easter and we will all pitch in and rent a SUV and split gas. This way it's not too much for one couple and instead of five cars heading to the same destination, it's only one."
'We've canceled our trip'
Debra Pflieger of Murrieta, Calif., has been trimming her budget to deal with mandatory furloughs from her job as a public safety dispatcher for the state. She just canceled vacations to Texas and New Orleans because of high gas prices, and she's fuming about it.
"It is flat wrong! The gas companies report massive profits and we the consumers just keep getting reamed for gas and every other needed commodity???" she wrote. "I could go on and on here."
'Vacation? What's a vacation?'
Money's too tight right now for Susan Brennan of Edgewater, Fla., to even consider going away. Her commuting costs are up to $300 a month for a job that requires her to have a car, so she's had to cut back elsewhere.
"I'm probably going to have to cancel my cell phone plan and I still don't think that will make up for the gas increase," Brennan wrote. "I've already given up cable and many other former 'necessities' . . . I use my bicycle to go grocery shopping and run errands. Vacation? That was another lifetime ago."
Of course, productivity experts will tell you some kind of a break is essential for peak performance, even if it's not a full-fledged traditional vacation. So how can you make it more affordable?
Well, if a road trip is in your plans for this summer, here's what you should do:
- Check your math. Road trips are often the cheapest way to get there if your destination is less than 500 miles or you're traveling with a family or other group of people. Otherwise, you may be able to get there less expensively with plane, train or bus tickets, once you factor in the costs of motels and food on the road.
- Compensate for higher costs. Vacations may be necessary for the soul, but they're luxuries when it comes to budgeting. That means they need to be paid for in cash. If you can't save up more to cover potentially higher gas prices, consider ratcheting back your plans — staying in cheaper lodging, making more of your own meals or even changing your destination from a guaranteed budget-strainer (amusement parks, expensive beach towns) to something more manageable (a state or national park, say).
- Get the best mileage. Check your tires before you leave and at every fill-up to make sure they're properly inflated. Pack as lightly as possible to reduce the weight your engine has to pull. Drive sedately — don't speed or indulge in jackrabbit starts and stops. Using the air conditioner lowers your gas mileage but so can open windows, which can increase drag. Consider compromising by using the air conditioner judiciously.
- Bring your own. Great snacks are an essential part of the road trip experience, in my humble opinion, but leaving the selection up to the convenience stores along the route will leave you poorer and sadder, because you've wasted precious calories on mediocre food. A better solution: Bring a variety of treats from home, along with a cooler for drinks, and supplement them with those can't-miss road food experiences (It's-Its in San Francisco, cheese straws and Goo Goo Clusters in the South, whoopee pies and Sky Bars in New England). A well-timed snack also can tide you over until you can get to really good food: Instead of scarfing down at a roadside McDonald's because you're starving, you can go the few extra miles to the best barbecue stand in Texas.
If you decide on a "staycation," remember that you're unlikely to get much R&R if you're just sitting at home trying not to think about the chores you should be doing.
- Make a plan to get out of the house every day. The old saw about "a change is as good as a rest" applies when you're picking activities. Choose experiences and places that aren't part of your regular routine.
- Have your meals somewhere interesting. Take a picnic to a park or your portable grill to the lake. Organize a potluck with your friends. If you have to eat at home, do so outside.
- Look for discounts. If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are, there's an Entertainment Book available that offers coupons for restaurants and attractions. You also can check with your local chamber of commerce to see what discounts are available.
- Take pictures. Immortalize your at-home vacation just as you would a trip away. Photos can help signal that you're having a special experience, even if it doesn't involve resort fees and tips.
Need help deciding where to go? Try out our merchant recommender for New York and San Francisco
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