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July 4 weekend travel returns with a boom, and deals remain

Americans will hit the roads—and airports—this Fourth of July weekend in greater numbers, with industry experts saying it will be the most traveled weekend of a summer that is shaping up to be the busiest in years.

The increase in travel over the holiday weekend is due to several factors, including low airfare deals, said Patrick Fragale, chief content officer of travel booking website CheapOair, which has seen a 30 percent rise in domestic air bookings for July 4. Prices for nine of the firm's top 10 July 4 destinations in the United States saw either no change or drops of up to 23 percent in airfares compared to the same period last year.


Atlantic City, New Jersey, hosts one of the largest fireworks displays in the United States.
Source: Atlantic City Alliance
Atlantic City, New Jersey, hosts one of the largest fireworks displays in the United States.

Expedia is tracking a 10 percent year-over-year rise in July 4 domestic air bookings, with New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., its top destinations.

This year is expected to see the third consecutive summer of rising travel spending. Overall, some 72 million Americans, or 41 percent of the population, plan to get away for the weekend, while a whopping 75 percent will travel at some point this summer, according to the American Express Spending and Savings Tracker report. In 2013 and 2012, it was respectively 31 percent and 30 percent for the holiday weekend and 69 percent and 59 percent for the past two summers.

The U.S. Travel Association, a nonprofit industry advocacy group, forecasts day trips will grow 1.7 percent through the end of August. "Even better, we expect the number of overnight trips to grow more than twice as fast as day trips," said David Huether, senior vice president of research. "Longer trip durations means higher spending by travelers, which is good news for businesses, tax revenues and job creation."

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Priceline.com travel editor Brian Ek told CNBC the online discount travel emporium is "expecting a substantial amount of travel" for July 4.

Independence Day also beats out the traditional starts and finishes to summer, with 41 percent of the U.S. residents vacationing for July 4 this year topping the 29 percent who traveled for Memorial Day, and the 28 percent who plan to travel for Labor Day, according to the AmEx report.

Rising prices aren't deterring Independence Day vacationers, either. AmEx found that Americans expect to spend an average of 9 percent more on July 4 travel but ever more of them—91 percent today, compared with 88 percent a year ago—are looking for ways to cut costs. For example, nearly a third will choose accommodations with kitchen facilities, about a quarter will travel outside peak periods, just over a third will shorten their trips and 44 percent, versus 39 percent last year, will drive rather than fly.

Pricey gas? No problem

Gasoline prices during the holiday weekend are forecast to reach their highest level in six decades, said Michael Green, spokesman for the American Automobile Association. (On June 25, AAA's national gas-price average was $3.68 for regular unleaded and $4.03 for premium per gallon, versus $3.57 and $3.91, respectively, one year ago.)

"This is very frustrating for the very many people driving on summer road trips," Green said. However, on any holiday weekend, up to 90 percent of traveling Americans are going by car, and "we generally do not find that people cancel their trips due to high gas prices," Green added.

Where have Fourth of July revelers already booked? And where can would-be Yankee Doodles still find the best last-minute deals? It depends on whom you ask—although, unsurprisingly, U.S. destinations are most popular overall.

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Cross-referencing its airfare bookings and hotel-rate data, CheapOair found that Atlanta and Denver, as well as Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in Florida, offer the most affordable domestic July 4 escapes this year. Orlando, for example, boasts an average nightly hotel rate of $85.74 and an average round-trip airfare of $332.60; that airfare is 3 percent lower than one year ago, it said.

At Hotwire, Chicago, with an average nightly hotel rate of $92; Washington, D.C.,($90); New York ($208); Dallas-Fort Worth ($63); and Los Angeles ($103) are most popular, followed by Orlando ($55), Atlanta ($66), Las Vegas ($75); Toronto, Ontario ($96); and San Diego ($89). Expedia customers are opting for—in descending order—New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco, Orlando, Denver, Boston and Seattle.

July 4th in foreign parts

Priceline.com reports Las Vegas as its top July 4 booking choice, although it notes Aspen, Colorado, is the best buy for the long weekend, with an average nightly hotel rate of $152, down 27 percent from 2013.

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Despite the patriotic nature of the holiday, many Americans are opting to spend it abroad—at least according to CheapOair's Fragale, who noted the site has booked 70 percent more international travel for July 4 this year. "Many of the international destinations on [our] list are only a few hours away from major airport hubs in the U.S., so travelers are taking advantage of the low prices and exploring new destinations outside the country," he added. American Express Travel found that, this year, 30 percent of Americans will cross an international border at some point during the holiday.

Topping CheapOair's list of foreign, overseas or long-haul July 4 hotspots is Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with an average round-trip fare of $497.74, followed by St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, at $416.64 roundtrip; Reykjavik, Iceland ($513); Caribbean island St. Maarten ($324.74); and Mexico City ($411.09). The average international airfare for July 4 to 6 is $578.42, according to the website.

Travelocity says that with overseas hotel rates dipping 3 percent, to an average $211 a night, and airfares rising by 3 percent, compared to 2013, its top foreign or overseas destinations this July 4 are London; the Dominican Republic; Paris; Vancouver, British Columbia; and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Priceline.com officials found that international airfares are actually up 7 percent for July 4. Thus, former overseas hotspots such as London and Paris are failing to resonate with its customers this year. "The fact that the holiday falls on a Friday could have something to do with it—travelers are likely planning for a long weekend trip that isn't too far from home," Priceline.com's Ek told CNBC. "It looks like travelers are taking Independence Day to heart and staying domestic for the annual commemoration."

Some booking tips

Travelers still looking to get away for the holiday have options. The U.S. Travel Association, for example, said its DailyGetaways.com website is posting remaining July 4 inventory that didn't sell during its five-week promotion, which ended June 20, through the holiday itself. Other offers at the site feature savings of up to 50 percent from what the organization calls "13 top travel brands."

"There are great offers still available," said Huether. "From hotel points and stays, to theme park tickets and attraction passes—there are lots of opportunities to save on travel this summer."

At Expedia, senior director of marketing Sarah Gavin suggested booking flights when you'd least expect to in order to save lots of money. "A great day to fly to your destination is actually July 4 itself," she noted. "If you fly July 4 and return July 8, that combination promises to yield the best deals."

"If you fly July 4 and return July 8, that combination promises to yield the best deals." -Sarah Gavin, director of marketing, Expedia

Travelocity recommends traveling to destinations with average nightly hotel rates below $150, such as Las Vegas ($105); Albuquerque, New Mexico ($112); Colorado Springs, Colorado ($116); Memphis, Tennessee ($126); and Dallas-Fort Worth ($126). Priceline.com's "Top 10 Best July 4th Bargains" list includes Aspen, at $152 a night (down 27 percent from one year ago); Rome, Italy ($154, down 18 percent); Barcelona, Spain ($143, down 16 percent); Williamsburg, Virginia ($97, down 13 percent); and Phoenix ($85, down 12 percent).

"Many of those destinations aren't your typical go-to places for BBQ loving and fireworks dazzling," said Ek. "For them to compete with the lights of Las Vegas, New Orleans' fireworks on the river or the extraordinary pyrotechnic show in New York City, they'll have to reduce pricing, [so] better rates may tempt travelers to make a trip outside of the quintessential July 4th destinations."

—By CNBC's Kenneth Kiesnoski

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