Fewer plan to travel Memorial Day weekend

Tens of millions of Americans are going to get away this Memorial Day weekend, but not as many as last year.

According to the auto club AAA, 34.8 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home for the unofficial start of the summer travel season, a 0.9% dip from 2012.

As usual, most will make their getaway by car, with roughly 31.2 million expected to hit the road, AAA says. That’s a slight uptick from 2012, and comes even as AAA predicts that Memorial Day gas prices may be their highest in two years. Nationally, a gallon of gas on average cost $3.66 on Wednesday.

Still, AAA expects fewer people to take to the air, predicting that 2.3 million Americans will fly, an 8% dip compared to last year. Dissatisfaction with the airlines, along with the fluctuating economy are key reasons for the predicted drop in Memorial Day weekend travelers, AAA says.

“American travelers are experiencing fee fatigue and frustration with everything from higher fares to airport security,” AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet said in a statement. “As a result, many are choosing road travel in higher numbers due to the lower cost and convenience it offers. “

For those looking beyond Memorial Day toward their summer vacations, a trip may be more affordable with airline and other travel experts expecting gas prices to drop and airfares to remain roughly the same as last year.

“We are actually seeing more people flying, not fewer, and that’s because airlines are delivering strong on-time performance and airfare remains a true bargain,” says Victoria Day, of the industry trade group Airlines for America, countering the viewpoint of AAA. The organization predicts U.S. carriers will ferry nearly 209 million fliers globally from June through August, 1% more than last summer, and the most summertime passengers in five years.

Rick Seaney, co-founder of the price-tracking site FareCompare.com, says summertime fares, including those for Memorial Day weekend, are basically flat compared to 2012. But last year’s fares were the highest since the summer of 2003, he adds, so flying won’t necessarily feel like a bargain.

“They’re pretty steep,” Seaney says of fares. But airlines, eager to fly full planes, may be hesitant to boost ticket prices much further Seaney says. He added that there might even be a few summertime deals for flights on slower travel days like Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday.

Vincent Greenlee, a computer consultant who lives in Chicago, says he took one look at the $4.20 he would have to pay for a gallon of gas in his hometown and decided that flying over Memorial Day weekend was the better choice.

“We found fares for $230 round trip,” says Greenlee, who with his wife Kristin, and sons Malcolm and Lincoln, is traveling to Fort Myers, Fla. to visit relatives. “For that price, why deal with the driving and high gas prices?”

But Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst with GasBuddy and the Oil Price Information Service says that in much of the Midwest, where gas is costing more than $4 a gallon, prices should start to drop, possibly as soon as this weekend.

If you “have a half tank of gas, your patience will be rewarded with lower prices by Sunday,” Kloza says.

That relief should soon be felt in other pricey areas as well, like California and the Pacific Northwest. “You will see prices drop appreciably, perhaps, 20, 30 or 40 cents between now and let’s say July 4,” Kloza says. “Nationwide we’ll see prices average between $3.40 and $3.80 (a gallon) during the summer,” similar to what motorists paid last year.

Meanwhile, industry watchers predict it will cost a bit more to rent a car or stay in a hotel over the Memorial Day weekend.

AAA expects car rental rates to average $43 per day, a 19% jump over last year, and the steepest Memorial Day rate in four years.

And R. Mark Woodworth, president of PKF Hospitality Research, predicts the average hotel room rate to be up by 4% this holiday weekend compared to last year. He expects rates to be between 3.5% and 4% higher than 2012 for the overall summer travel period.

Contributing: Gary Strauss and Nancy Trejos