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Americans Are Vacation-Bound, but Bargain-Conscious

Thursday, 20 May 2010 | 1:17 PM ET

With the kick-off of the summer travel season only a few days away, it appears that Americans haven't lost their wanderlust, they just plan on satisfying their urge to travel in more thrify ways.

AAA's Memorial Day holiday survey found more Americans plan on hitting the road this Memorial Day weekend, but their travel plans are still focusing on bargain options like spending time with family and friends and driving to their destination.

Car on road
Car on road

In their holiday travel survey, AAA projects that the number of Americans traveling on vacation this Memorial Day will increase 5.4 percent to about 32.1 million travelers. Last year, about 30.5 million Americans traveledduring the same period, the auto club said.

However, this year, Americans expect they will spend about $800 on their trip and travel about 626 miles from home, AAA said. This compares with average spending plans of $1,052 and travel distances of about 620 miles last year.

"While the economy continues to be rocked by waves of occasional uncertainty, improved economic performance from one year ago should cause more Americans to take vacations this Memorial Day holiday weekend," said Glen MacDonnell, director of AAA Travel Services.

The findings are consistent with both recent comments from hotel operators such as Loews and Marriottas well as the responses generated by a few other recent travel surveys.

Hotel executives have reported a pick-up in their business, but not enough to raise hotel room rates significantly.

According to AAA research, hotel rates this holiday weekend will be down about 1 percent from last year, on average. Airfares will be unchanged and car rental rates are lower, AAA said.

Still, the majority of travelers will be driving to their destination, with about 87 percent, or 28.0 million reaching their destination that way. The good news for drivers is that AAA doesn't expect gasoline prices to average more than $3.00 a gallon during the holiday weekend.

Other recent holiday surveys also back some of the trends AAA discovered. American Express recently asked 2,000 adults about their summer travel plans and found more than half of them were planning a summer vacation. Among the more affluent respondents, that number was even higher—some 73 percent of those surveyed.

"People are passionate about travel and frequently we find that they would rather find creative ways to reduce the cost of their trip rather than do without it altogether," said Audrey Hendley, vice president of American Express Travel.

On average, travellers expect they will spend about $1,000 per person on travel this summer, but among more affluent travellers the average expected spending jumps to about an average of $6,400 per family of four. Young professionals also expect to spend more than average on their travel, or about an average of $4,800 per family, American Express said.

Driving to a destination rather than flying is the most popular way to cut costs, but some people are planning to stay fewer days or spend less on activities or excursions on their trip.

Beach
Beach

The "staycation" also remains popular. About 11 percent of those surveyed by American Express said they would enjoy time off at attractions near their homes.

A separate study by Ypartnership/Harrison Group suggests that number could be even higher. They found that about one in four Americans said that they would visit destinations within 50 miles of their home in lieu of a more distant vacation. The group said that that number is actually higher than last year.

Ypartnership Executive Vice President Greg Dunn said he "did not expect to see quite as much of a jump" this year. But he said the increase is "not surprising from the consumer's point of view."

According to Dunn, people still want to get away, but there remains "much risk and angst" over how to spend discretionary income.

"Even though (the economic slump) was more drastic last year, the reality of what's going on now has made us change our ways," Dunn said. "People will look at spending in a different way."

Wherever consumers are this holiday weekend, the best news is that they are likely to see wonderful weather. Weather forecasting firm Planalytics expects favorable weather to to set the stage for parades, barbecues and other outdoor activities.

This is much more favorable than last year, which was the wettest Memorial Day since 2004, Planalytics said.

-April Lee contributed to this report.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said average travel spending estimates for affluent and young professionals were per-person figures, when they were actually based on spending per family of four.)

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