WASHINGTON – Despite record fuel prices above $3 per gallon, more Americans will travel by car over the Memorial Day holiday weekend than a year ago, according to a survey by travel agency AAA.
In a sign that energy costs will affect behavior, however, AAA said travelers are planning to stay closer to home and take shorter trips. Travel-related expenses for U.S. households are expected average nearly $600.
AAA forecast that 38.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more, an increase of 1.7 percent from last year. Roughly 32.1 million travelers — or 84 percent of the total — will drive, up 1.8 percent from last year, AAA said.
The AAA estimate is based on the results of a national survey of 2,000 adults.
The number of Americans traveling by plane is expected to rise by 1 percent to 4.4 million. The remaining travelers will get to their destinations by bus or train.
"High gas prices and increased vacation costs won't deter Americans from traveling this Memorial Day," Sandra Hughes, vice president of travel for AAA, said in a statement. "Families will travel closer to home, they will travel for fewer days and will save money by staying in less expensive hotels and eating in cheaper restaurants, but they will continue to take vacations and plan getaways."
The average retail price of unleaded gasoline nationwide was $3.10 per gallon on Wednesday, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service.
Experts disagree over how high prices have to rise before consumers are shocked into driving less — at least temporarily. Some say that $3.50 per gallon would cause consumers to cut back, while others say $4 per gallon is a more crucial tipping point.
Only during the first week of May, when prices jumped to $3.05 a gallon, did demand for gasoline abate slightly — by about two-hundredths of a percent, government data show.
AAA predicted flights over the holiday weekend would be 5 percent less expensive than a year ago, at an average of $166 per round-trip ticket. Rental cars are expected to be 16 percent less expensive than last year, averaging $31 a day, but hotels are projected to be 13 percent more expensive than last year.