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Gas Cheaper, But Wages Keeping People Home

When gas prices hit $4 a gallon last summer, Joyce and Ricky Eagle of Warrenton, Va., simply padded their travel budget a little before tooling around the Midwest in their motor home.

This year, gas is considerably cheaper. But the Eagles' 36-foot Holiday Rambler will stay in the driveway. The reason? The software company Ricky works for sliced 20 percent off his paycheck.

"That's cut us way back," Joyce said. The couple bagged plans to fan out this summer with trips to Pennsylvania Dutch country and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

As Americans prune their expenses because of the relentless recession, the family vacation is taking a hit. A third of those surveyed in an AP-Gfk Poll released Monday said they had already canceled at least one trip this year because of money.

IHS Global Insight, which studies travel habits for AAA, expects Americans to take 20 million fewer trips from April to September and spend $30.3 billion less than last year. And those trips are likely to be shorter.

"If you live in the West, you'll go to the Rockies, but you won't go to New England," said Mark Sedenquist, publisher of roadtripamerica.com, where travelers share tips about how to get the most out of their vacations.

Fewer and shorter vacations will hurt the economy. Summer travelers are the lifeblood of countless hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, campgrounds and every touristy spot in between.

The pullback is expected even though travel will be cheaper. The average price of a gallon of gas in the United States was $2.25 a gallon on Tuesday, well below the $3.71 mark at this time last year.

And hotels were cheaper early this year compared with last year: 34 percent cheaper in Las Vegas, 22 percent in New York, 16 percent in San Diego and 14 percent in Orlando, Fla., according to Expedia Inc.

In all, a seven-day road trip from Philadelphia to Orlando and back is expected to cost $272 less than last year.

Of course, it's not easy staying home. Every summer, Joyce Eagle stuffs the Rambler's on-board refrigerator with taco meat, corn casseroles and milk before setting out to roam the countryside.

Their plush, wood-paneled ride guzzles a gallon of gas every eight miles or so, but it's worth it, she said. They might save a few hundred dollars if they went by car, but then they'd have to pay for hotels and restaurants. It just wouldn't be the same.

"That's the one thing that's enjoyment for us, just getting out and enjoying the RV," she said.

Sarah Puffer, 23, also felt the pinch this year, but she said she's still determined to have an adventure this summer.

Instead of a monthlong meander through a dozen states, the teacher from Alaska said she and two friends will pile into her dad's Ford Focus and dash around the country, hoping to cover the same territory in half the time.

"We really want to get out there and see just everything," she said. "Because of the bad economy, we don't know if everything is possible."

Janice Croze, 35, of British Columbia, said she'd love to fly to Hawaii like she did when her son was 3. Instead, she and her husband will pack the kids in their Dodge Grand Caravan and head for their mother's cabin in the interior of the province, six hours away.

Gas is cheaper than plane tickets this year, she said. And there are other perks to driving.

"When you're in your car, you're in control," Croze said. "And when you have little kids, it's far more convenient. It's easier to change a baby in a car, I find, than in an airplane."

As for the Eagles, Ricky said he plans to spend the summer in his wood shop, building coffee tables and other furniture fit for the interior of his RV.

"Of course, I'd rather be out on the road," he said. "But I'm just apprehensive about my job and the viability of the company that I work for. Obviously, that tempers a lot of the excitement you feel when you think of summer."

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