— Will rising gas prices detour spring and summer travel plans?
In some cities, such as San Francisco, a gallon of gas is hovering around $4. Nationally, the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline reached $3.51 last week, up 13 percent in a month.
“It’s not like other commodities such as milk, bread or eggs,” said AAA spokesperson Troy Green. “As you drive around, you see those gas prices large and in your face at intersections every day.”
Airlines are facing fuel challenges again as well. United Continental Holdings, the world’s largest airline, on Tuesday said rising fuel costs will force it to drop some unprofitable routes and nix plans to add new ones.
That comes on top of a succession of industrywide increases in airplane ticket prices. “A traveler who paid $240 for a round-trip on the first day of the year is now paying closer to $300 — a 25 percent increase,” said Rick Seaney of FareCompare.com.
Seaney has already counted six successful domestic 2011 airfare hikes. “That is a carbon copy of 2008 to date, where we ended up with 15 hikes for the year as oil hit stratospheric highs in the summer of $145 a barrel and just as quickly crashed to $32 a barrel at Christmas.”
AAA hasn’t yet surveyed drivers about Memorial Day driving plans, but travelers respond to rising gas prices in somewhat predictable ways. “The rise in fuel costs may cause some people to alter or cancel travel plans altogether,” said Green. Others who have already made their plans are still likely to travel. “What they may do to compensate for increased fuel costs is stay in more economical hotels, dine at more economical or cheaper restaurants and spend less on gifts and other incidentals,” he added.
“All travel destinations pay close attention to gas prices,” said Carl Whitehill of the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Gettysburg, Pa., one of many towns getting ready to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. “We know fuel prices will affect travel decisions. While we still think millions of people will come to Gettysburg, they may not buy as many souvenirs or go to as many attractions as they’d hoped.”
Whitehill believes those millions of visitors will still eat in restaurants and stay in hotels. But Marti Mayne, spokesperson for the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, said country inn and B&B owners are concerned about the effect gas prices will have on guests' travel plans and how those higher prices will affect food and energy costs at the inns.
“The B&B industry held its own during the 2008-09 gas crisis, as people stayed closer to home and ‘staycations’ became popular,” said Mayne. “The B&B industry expects this will be the trend again as most inns and B&Bs are located within a one-tank drive of a major metropolitan area.”
Still, she said some B&Bs are already rolling out offers that include complimentary gas gift cards and finishing touches are being put on a new B&B campaign that is sure to include more such offers.
For some travelers, a complimentary $20 gas card with a two-night stay won’t be a strong incentive to travel. But AAA’s Green said, “Others may look at this as a great idea and want to take advantage of it.”
And, free gas card or not, Green said that when fuel prices are up, drivers can stretch their travel dollars by remembering to properly inflate their tires, driving the speed limit, avoiding quick starts and stops and taking out any unnecessary weight in the trunk. “If you’re not going golfing, you don’t need to be driving around with those golf clubs,” said Green.
“We also suggest people shop for gas with their steering wheel,” he added. “Don’t drive 30 miles out of your way to buy cheaper gas. But you may be able to save three to five cents a gallon by driving a few extra blocks” or by consulting a website or smartphone app that tracks area gas prices.
Fly away — for more
Those planning spring or summer vacations abroad should be ready for sticker shock.
“If you’re planning on heading to Europe, know this: Fuel surcharges are over $400 round trip now with average taxes around $120,” said FareCompare.com's Seaney. “This means before any fare is charged, you're looking at $520 round trip, the highest we have tracked in 8 years.
“If you are shopping for early spring travel, it would behoove you to lock in now,” Seaney added.
Seaney’s tips for finding the best deal include shopping on Tuesday afternoons, when “the maximum cheap seats hit the reservation systems at 3 p.m.,” and flying on the least expensive days, which tend to be Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. He also suggests shopping for one ticket at a time, even if there are two or more people traveling together. “Airline reservations systems must have everyone in the party at the same price, even if there are a few cheaper seats.”
The bottom line? If you want to go somewhere, don’t wait: “Procrastination is not your friend when planes are full,” said Seaney. “Airlines have no reason to discount at the last minute.”