Get ready for lots of company on the road and in the skies around the Fourth of July weekend, though you’ll find them slightly less crowded than last year.
NBC News reported that AAA projects 40.8 million Americans will take a trip of 50 miles or more during the Independence Day holiday, a 0.8% decrease from last year’s record high.
The road trip still rules: 84% of travelers will be driving, while 8% will go by plane. But the number of people flying will increase slightly compared to 2012. The remaining travelers will take a train or go by bus.
“Independence Day is typically the busiest holiday of the summer travel season with six million more Americans traveling than Memorial Day just two months ago,” said AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet, in a statement to NBC News.
The calendar may be to blame for the overall decline of travelers, the association noted. With July 4th landing on a Thursday this year, the celebration is now considered a five-day holiday, with many people taking off the day before and coming back on Sunday.
Last year, Independence Day fell on a Wednesday, making it a six-day holiday for many people and giving them more time and opportunity to travel, AAA noted.
And despite Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s more upbeat assessment on Wednesday about the U.S. economy, the AAA said financial hardship continues to be a factor for travelers.
“Economic growth is not robust enough to offset the impact of the sequester and the effect of the end of the payroll tax cut on American families,” Darbelnet said.
Still, the average traveler is expected to spend $747 and travel a round-trip distance of 613 miles this Fourth of July.
Gas prices won’t be a major factor in travel decisions this holiday – they’re up just slightly over last year, AAA noted. But weekend daily car rental rates and airfares are noticeably higher, up 29% and 6% respectively over 2012.
Robert Neal will take to the road this Independence Day holiday the same as millions of other Americans. But there’s a difference in their road-trip ritual this Fourth of July.
The price of gasoline, while down sharply from last year’s peak, means the 74-year-old owner of a motorhome may not venture as far as he has in the past, according to Reuters.
Standing in shorts and sneakers outside his RV at a campground in Grapevine, a lakeside town near Dallas, Neal said he and his wife remained unsure where to go next. “The gas price as it is now, it’s a maybe, maybe,” he said.
RVs like Neal’s double as a vehicle and place to stay, complete with kitchen and bedroom. They are convenient but demand quite a bit of fuel.
The travel and auto group AAA projected last week that U.S. travel over the holiday weekend would drop 1.9% this year compared to 2008, a casualty of higher fuel prices and economic worries.
Approximately 37.1 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home during the holiday weekend, typically the busiest time for auto travel in the United States, the world’s largest energy consumer, down from 37.8 million last year.
Gasoline prices are about a third lower than they were a year ago, but increases at the pump will steer Americans away from road trips, AAA said. Retail prices for regular gasoline averaged nearly $2.63 a gallon today (July 2), about 11% higher than they were around a month ago.
RV parks and road trips are as American as apple pie and are ingrained in a culture where the car remains king.
The country is still recovering from last summer’s shock when pump prices soared past $4 a gallon, crippling the already wounded auto industry and worsening a recession which the economy has yet to escape.
With that shock came opportunities for some.
Retired New York City police officer David Linkletter bought his big RV, parked near Neal’s rig, last year “brand new” from someone who hardly used it and wanted to get rid of it because he couldn’t afford to drive it.
“I got this because of the economy but it was speculative. I wouldn’t drive it last year. I thought we would just drive it nearby,” he said as he prepared to fire up an outside gas grill to cook bacon and eggs on a hot plate for his family.
The subsequent fall in gas prices he said made a trip to Texas affordable, even though he only gets 8 miles to the gallon with his RV. During the trip from New York to north Texas he said he filled up twice each day at $120 a pop.
Fees for a campground remain much cheaper than for a motel which adds to camping’s appeal when times are tough.
“At $20 a night you can’t beat it,” said 20-year-old student David Baker as he sat a picnic table by his tent. He had driven to north Texas from Wichita, Kan.
In Arizona, Dan Karwoski and his partner, Denise Robinson, were planning to drive to Redondo Beach in southern California, to spend the holiday weekend with family.
“We probably would have made this trip anyway, but when the gas prices were elevated, we didn’t drive nearly as much as we do now,” said Karwoski, a senior media specialist for a Tucson software company.
Ken LaRovere, a 52-year-old sales manager for an employee benefits company from the Reno, Nev., area was planning a trip to Donner Lake in California.
“The lower gas prices allowed us to take more trips and do more,” he said.
Green shoots can be seen elsewhere. The number of visitors surged in May at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, a popular wildlife and tourist spot.
After four months of declining or flat visitation, Yellowstone saw a huge uptick in May — an increase of 20.1% to 261,763 visitors compared to May 2008, according to the National Park Service.
“An analysis of past visitation trends also indicates park visitation typically rebounds as the country begins to pull out of an economic downturn,” it said.
There are other signs of Americans sticking close to home.
The Vineyards Campground & Cabins, where Neal and Linkletter were staying, said that in 2007 and 2008 about 10% of its guests were from Grapevine and 71% in both years hailed from Texas.