Saturday, May 7, 2011

Don't let high gas prices stall your summer plans

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Betty and Donald Fatzie had mapped out a New England driving tour for their summer vacation until a few simple calculations put the brakes on the plan.

  • Among those vacationers that aren't canceling trips because of gas prices, many are planning to stay in less expensive lodging or cut vacation days. Shown is a price board in Novato, Calif., Thursday.

    By Jeff Chiu, AP

    Among those vacationers that aren't canceling trips because of gas prices, many are planning to stay in less expensive lodging or cut vacation days. Shown is a price board in Novato, Calif., Thursday.

By Jeff Chiu, AP

Among those vacationers that aren't canceling trips because of gas prices, many are planning to stay in less expensive lodging or cut vacation days. Shown is a price board in Novato, Calif., Thursday.

"It was a pleasant idea, until we worked out the mileage," says Betty, a suburban Washington, D.C., resident. "Gas prices are insane. And who knows what they'll be by summer?"

Who knows, indeed. But with gas prices edging toward — and in many regions, surpassing — $4 a gallon, some would-be road warriors are reassessing their plans. Memorial Day weekend travel forecasts, which point to the robustness of the coming peak travel season, aren't out yet. But gas prices, already up about 25% since 2010, could rise by up to 40% over last summer, say the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That's causing concern throughout the travel industry.

In a survey of 15,000 members released this week, 72% of respondents said fuel and airfare increases have caused them to alter their travel plans. And 63% said they had canceled trips; 36% said they planned to stick closer to home or shorten their itineraries. In a similar survey by the vacation rental site HomeAway, 62% of travelers said they're tweaking their plans to compensate for higher fuel and airfare costs.

For the Fatzies, that means ditching the road trip for a Caribbean cruise. Not only did they find a good deal, but the cruise line will bus them from Baltimore to New York for the sailing.

For retiree Jean Mothena of Aldie, Va., it means scrapping a month-long western RV tour, opting for a less ambitious jaunt through New England. The Mothenas' 36-foot RV gets 8 miles per gallon. At $4 a gallon, they figure the trip west would have cost them $1,600 in gas.

For Brandon Berg, an outdoors enthusiast from Seattle, it means giving up his monthly car-camping trips. Instead, he'll probably scout for a cheap San Francisco airfare and call it a summer.

In summer 2008, when the economy tanked and gas prices soared to an all-time average high of $4.11 a gallon, Memorial Day road trips decreased by more than 10%, according to AAA. On Thursday, prices in seven states topped 2008 records, AAA reports.

Travel bounced back in many locales last summer, including drive destinations such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In tourist-dependent Pigeon Forge, Tenn., at the park's northern entrance, revenue was up 5% after two lackluster years, says Leon Downey, who heads the local tourism department.

"Nobody likes high gas prices, but we're encouraging people not to let one thing like gas torpedo their vacations. There are other ways to cut back," he says.

In fact, says AAA's Heather Hunter, that's a tact many vacationers have taken. They'll stay in a less expensive lodging or cut vacation days.

But gas prices already appear to be having an impact on travel, says Adam Weissenberg, vice chairman of Deloitte's tourism, hospitality and leisure sector. And if gas hits $5 a gallon and it costs $100 to fill the typical tank, "People are more likely to say, 'We need to cut back,' " he says.

Here are some cost-saving strategies for your next road trip.

Before you go:

Plot the most efficient route . AAA's Fuel Cost Calculator lets you input the make and model of your car, along with your destination to compute what you'll spend on gas.

Get a tune-up.  A tuned engine can save an average 4% in gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Properly inflate your tires and save another 3.3%. Addressing more major problems can result in greater savings. A faulty oxygen sensor, for instance, can reduce your mileage by up to 40%, notes John Nielsen, AAA National Director of Auto Repair, Buying Services and Consumer Information.

Lock in costs with a pre-booked package.  Douglas Rubin and family booked back-to-back Disney cruises (a three- and four-day sailing cost less than a single five-day cruise) last summer. "By now, the cost of fuel is Continental and Disney Cruise Lines' worry," says the transportation economist.

Consider redeeming loyalty rewards points.  Nicky Crawford of Memphis just shelved a 900-mile road trip to Georgia. "It's a good time to cash in frequent-flier miles," he says.

•Look into close-to-home destinations  that offer a variety of options. Among locales cross-promoting to regional markets is the Pennsylvania Dutch Country Roads region (Hershey, Gettysburg, Lancaster and Harrisburg), which touts coasters, culture, antiques and golf. The towns are staging an Ultimate PA Road Trip Sweepstakes with four prize trips valued at $1,300.

That's an itinerary Steve Fleming of Chambersburg, Penn., will consider. "We'll go somewhere. But we won't drive a substantial distance," says the benefits educator. "Washington, Baltimore, Lancaster, Gettysburg? Sure. Boston? No."

On the road:

Slow down for greater fuel efficiency.  Every 5 mph over 60 mph is like adding 24 cents a gallon to the price of gas, says Nielsen.

Lose the aggression.  Making fast starts and stops wastes fuel. Simply changing your driving style can have a "tremendous impact" on fuel usage, Nielsen says.

Use your smart phone to locate the best gas prices.  Apps such as Gas Buddy and AAA's TripTik Mobile iPhone app compare prices in your locale. Websites that also do the job include,, and

Drive during off-peak times  to avoid traffic jams.

Take the most fuel-efficient vehicle you own.  If your only ride is a gas guzzler, it might be worth renting one that eats less gas.

Watch for hotel and destination promotions.  Among them: About 300 inns and B&Bs nationwide are offering gas and public transit vouchers and rebates to car poolers in the B&Bs Kick Gas campaign. (For a list of participants: In pedestrian-friendly San Luis Obispo, Calif., the SLO Car Free promotion is offering 20% off Amtrak tickets. In Florida, 10 Marriott lodgings are offering a $50 gas coupon with a two-night stay through September, while a number of hotels in Daytona Beach and Panama City Beach have gas-related discounts.

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