The recession finally appears to be in the rear-view mirror for Americans planning to travel more this summer, and many will even indulge in upgrades, according to several new industry reports.
A post-recession high of 36.1 million people are expected to travel during Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff to the summer travel season, AAA Travel said Friday. That's a 1.5 percent increase from 2013.
"As the economy continues to improve at a slow and steady pace, consumer spending, disposable income, consumer confidence and the employment outlook are trending up, which is welcomed news for the travel industry," said Marshall Doney, AAA chief operating officer.
For the holiday weekend travel—counted as Thursday, May 22 to Monday, May 26—about 31.8 million people (or 88 percent of the trekkers) will travel by automobile, and they'll see gas prices in line with a year ago, about $3.63 per gallon, according to AAA.
Hotel rates for AAA Three Diamond lodgings are up 2 percent, to $169 per night, from a year ago, according to AAA's Leisure Travel Index. The same forecast sees airfares up 6 percent on the average round-trip discounted fares for the top 40 U.S. routes.
The average summer trip will reach 10 days this year, up from seven last summer, according to the American Express Travel survey of travel counselors. "That's a big jump," said Laura Fink, vice president of marketing at American Express Travel.
As for the types of upgrades, "it's across the board," she said. "People are paying a little more for the extras, cabin upgrades on cruise ships, better rooms at hotels. … They're moving to the front of the plane."
Summer trips booked thus far indicate spending is up roughly 1 percent from last year, according to to Brian Ek, travel editor at Priceline booking website.
Several of the new surveys show Americans are finally traveling again after a tough recession.
The Bryants of Borger, Texas, certainly fit that bill. This year, they were finally able to take their first long family vacation in almost 10 years.
"We haven't gotten to do a big trip because of the recession," Lesia Bryant said, nodding to her husband, Greg. "He has a small business, and we just haven't been able to until business picked up."
On Wednesday, the Bryants, along with their 15-year-old son, Evan, were in New York, 2,300 miles into a three-week road trip. They have visited the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, plus Niagara Falls and Canada.
"It's a pretty big splurge," said Greg Bryant, who estimated the cost at $12,000 to $13,000.
They stayed in places like Holiday Inn to rack up rewards points.The biggest splurges were on meals, he said, mentioning they sought out places featured on the "Diners, Drive-in and Dives" Food Network show.
And although this was the first big trip in almost a decade, the Bryants said a 2015 summer vacation would happen only if business remained good at Greg's repair shop in Texas.
Forecasts for expanded travel also came from Airlines for America, the industry trade group for U.S. airlines. This summer will be the busiest in six years, with 210 million passengers expected to fly on U.S. airlines from June 1 through Aug. 31, a 1.5 percent increase from a year earlier. That forecast, released Thursday, includes a record 29.9 million travelers on international flights.Amtrak is also projecting "heavy ridership" this summer. Although spokeswoman Kimberly Woods couldn't provide a summer forecast, she noted 2013 saw a record 31.6 million riders nationwide with 2.8 million riders in the months of May, June and August. July was the highest with 2.9 million Amtrak riders, she said.
The National Park Service is also upbeat, with expectations of a 3.2 percent increase in visitors for 2014, reaching a total of 284 million nationwide.
"We're looking for a bounce back in visitor numbers from the government shutdown and the additional loss of visitors when the Statue of Liberty and other parks were closed for Hurricane Sandy repairs," spokesman Jeffrey Olson told CNBC in an email. "I think one of the biggest things going for the National Park Service is that the dark days of Sandy, the shutdown and budget cuts from sequestration have started to fade. Our budget, while less than it was five years ago, is stable and people around the country—including members of Congress—have started to talk about the 2016 National Park Service centennial."
All that anticipated travel spending will bolster an upward trend. Real spending on travel and tourism in the fourth quarter of 2013, the most recent data available, increased at an annual rate of 4.2 percent according to the Commerce Department.
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