Why Americans are on the road again
Despite high gas prices, experts predict a record 37.2 million Americans will hit highways this weekend.
They follow a pattern of pique, chagrin, and then surrender. Travel analysts call them "personal-acceptance moments," and say they will be repeated all across America from now through Labor Day.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As he fills his minivan at the corner Mobil, Stu Latham has already calculated how much the $2.49 regular gas will cost for a round trip to Lake Tahoe, about seven hours north.
"Don't even talk to me ... I've already decided to bite the bullet," says the semi-retired computer consultant, as his wife and two teens exit the station's food mart with a Styrofoam cooler, drinks, and snacks. "All I can say [is that] it's cheaper than flying."
At a Starbucks next door, housewife Kelly Landes arrives at the same conclusion after comparing airline prices to Phoenix ($325 per person) to a rental car ($211 for four days, $113 for gas) using her laptop computer. "Gas isn't cheap," she says, "but I know a comparative bargain when I see one."
Despite the highest nominal gas prices ever recorded for a holiday, a record 37.2 million Americans are expected to travel this weekend - packed cheek-by-jowl inside their vans and sedans. Steeper gas prices - about 15 cents per gallon more than last year - will not be a significant deterrent, analysts say, because gasoline remains a small share of family vacation costs.
In fact, after adjusting for inflation and rises in average incomes, gasoline is taking less than half the bite from a household budget than in decades past, says Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank.
"The dollar price of gas looks way higher than it did in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s," says Taylor, "but the rise in American incomes has been so much greater that you are not going to see that much behavioral change in driving habits as a result."
That's part of the explanation for this year's predicted 2.2 percent rise in driving. But it also goes hand in glove with another phenomenon: Drivers will compensate for the added cost of gas by shortening their stays and cutting out other amenities like nice dinners and entertainment.
"People ... can forgo a pizza or two and a couple trips to Starbucks on their trip - they can make up for it relatively painlessly," says Justin McNaull, spokesman for the Automobile Association of America. With the organization's studies showing the typical "longest drive" for an American vacation is about 793 miles, a 15-cent rise in gas prices adds up to just $8 for a vehicle that gets 15 miles per gallon.
Many will also stay at cheaper hotels, or opt for RVs and campsites.
Rainy weather on the East Coast may dampen the adventurous spirit for many this weekend, but Memorial Day still sets the stage for what experts predict will be a record summer for travel.
Another part of record car travel inside the US, say analysts, is a trend of Americans traveling less overseas in the wake of the 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror. Though many analysts say Americans are overcoming their reservations about foreign travel, the rediscover-your-own-country movement that started during that time is still playing itself out. "What emerged since 9/11 was a strong desire for Americans to reconnect with the America they had never seen, and the only way to do that is through a road trip," say Matthew Hudson, author of "Roadtripping USA: The Complete Coast-to-Coast Guide to America."