University of Iowa sophomore Jimmy Novak didn’t let $3.50-a-gallon gasoline prices keep him from making a spring break pilgrimage to Daytona Beach, Fla., with his fraternity brothers last weekend.
But the prospect of $50 fill-ups did alter his behavior: “We’re squeezing five people in a car to save money on gas, and we made a ton of sandwiches before we left instead of stopping for fast food,” says Novak. “We just told ourselves it’s going to cost a pretty penny.”
For Novak and thousands of other spring vacationers, escalating fuel prices are putting the brakes on road trips. According to the motorist group AAA, the average for a gallon of regular is up 37 cents since Feb. 22, the second-fastest rate of increase in the industry’s history.
Some would-be vacationers are staying home, while others will “still travel, but compensate by spending less,” says AAA spokesman Troy Green. According to an unscientific online poll by USA TODAY, a quarter of nearly 700 respondents said high gas prices had prompted them to cancel a spring trip, with an additional 24% traveling but staying closer to home.
And if Middle East uncertainty continues to translate into pain at the pump, the “staycation” could make a comeback: Green notes that the number of Memorial Day road trips took a nose dive in 2008 when gas prices were heading toward an all-time average high of $4.11 a gallon, set in July of that year.
For now, travel marketers remain optimistic that a trifecta of a severe winter, delayed gratification and improving economy will trump soaring gas prices. Advance bookings for March and April are up sharply at many destinations, and recent airfare increases tied to the rising cost of fuel are making road trips cheap by comparison.
Lodging reservations at the spring break hot spot Panama City, Fla., are on par with last year’s migration, which took place before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in late April, says Dan Rowe, CEO of the Panama City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
March is the city’s third-biggest tourism month after June and July, and the bureau held promotional events at several Midwestern college campuses this winter to reassure students that area beaches were clean and free of oil.
“If you spread out the incremental cost (of higher gas prices) over several days, it’s still a relatively minor part of a trip,” says Rowe. “I don’t think people are going to sacrifice a week at the beach over a few extra dollars.”
But, adds Adam Weissenberg, vice chairman of Deloitte’s tourism, hospitality and leisure sector, “If prices continue rising to $4.50 or $5 a gallon, that affects people emotionally.”
For Billy and Patricia Carr, who work part time delivering vehicles for a Georgia automobile dealership, the pain is already palpable. Last week, they stopped at a suburban Atlanta QuikTrip station to put $5 of gas into the pickup they were dropping off. “Normally, we fill them up,” said Billy Carr, 72.
The Carrs have canceled their vacation plans for this year, forgoing their usual spring and summer trips to Florida and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Their RV remains idle in the backyard: It costs too much to fill it up.
In California, where average gas prices are the highest in the continental USA at $3.96 per gallon, San Francisco-based Personality Hotels just launched a Get Pumped package that includes a $10 gas card for each night’s stay. Such promotions, common during the gas crisis of 2008, could proliferate across the country this year as well, says Marti Mayne of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International.
California gas prices are a particular concern in Las Vegas, which draws nearly a third of its visitors from the Golden State and saw visitor spending plummet during the recession.
“We are becoming increasingly concerned about the rapid rise in the price of gasoline,” says John Restrepo, a Las Vegas-based economist.
“In the last 12 months, gas prices in Los Angeles have surged 28%, with a 15% jump in the last 30 days alone. And now the airlines are starting to raise ticket prices because of their rising fuel costs,” Restrepo says.
“When you combine that with an annual 2% rise in food prices, the highest since 2009, none of this is exactly good news for Las Vegas’ discretionary-spending-based economy, which finally appears to be stabilizing.”
Tourist traffic has been strong at South of the Border, the iconic Interstate 95 tourist attraction and watering hole at the borders of North and South Carolina, says spokeswoman Susanne Pelt.
“But it’s frightening to think what may happen if gas prices keep going up,” she adds. “We’re just kind of waiting and seeing.”
Contributing: Larry Copeland in Atlanta