Summer Vacationers Plan to Drive Instead of Fly

Price-conscious consumers to cut travel costs by staying closer to home, surveys say
Beach vacation
Photograph: Shutterstock

More Americans plan to hit the road for vacations by car this Memorial Day and summer, but the numbers aren’t expected to be back to pre-COVID levels yet, according to three surveys.

With Memorial Day approaching, convenience stores and gas stations can expect to see a lift in fuel volume sold from a year ago as more Americans hit the road for the long weekend, but lower gas prices will temper revenue gains.

The national average price of gasoline is expected to be about $3.53 Memorial Day weekend, down $1.10 from the average price a year ago, said GasBuddy, a unit of Alpharetta, Georgia-based PDI Technologies. GasBuddy provides gas price information on over 150,000 stations.

“Despite the lower prices at the pump, car travel this holiday will be shy of pre-pandemic numbers by about 500,000 travelers,” motor club AAA said.

AAA forecasts 37.1 million Americans will spend Memorial Day weekend traveling somewhere by car, up 6% from 35 million a year ago but down 1.4% from 37.6 million in 2019. It expects air travel to rise 11% to 3.4 million flyers from 3 million a year ago.

It also expects train and bus travel to rise this Memorial Day 21% to 1.9 million from 1.5 million in 2022, according to the Washington-based organization.

Close to Home

Looking ahead to the rest of the summer, two-thirds of Americans plan to take a summer vacation this year, but many will be staying closer to home or driving somewhere instead of flying to cut costs, according to new research from Bankrate, an independent publisher and comparison service.

For convenience stores and gas stations that often see their seasonal sales rise and fall depending on the strength of the summer travel season, this summer isn’t expected to generate big gains from travelers, as Americans watch their spending, according to a Bankrate survey taken March 29 to 31.

Slightly lower gas prices than a year ago could result in soft revenue growth for fuel stations, but whether summer sales of E15, an Ethanol blended gasoline, after May 20 will be allowed in some states hasn't been determined.

With prices higher at restaurants and hotels, lower gas prices aren’t the only factor determining travel plans, GasBuddy said in a news release. About four out of 10 Americans said inflation is causing them to reconsider summer travel plans according to GasBuddy’s research.  

“While the number of Americans planning on taking a road trip is higher this year, we’re finding that many remain cautious about the direction of the economy and thus have not yet cemented those plans in, with some hinting that price uncertainty is making things challenging,” Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, said in a statement. GasBuddy cited higher interest rates, the bank crisis and inflation as reasons Americans travel are putting off travel spending.

Summer Travel Plans

While 64% of Americans plan to take a summer driving trip this year, up from 58% a year ago, 60% of the vacationers haven’t yet booked accommodations and travel activities, according to GasBuddy’s 2023 Summer Travel Survey, released May 18.

The No. 1 summer vacation destination is a beach, with 39% of survey respondents saying they plan to spend their vacation days on the shore, compared with 28% who will vacation in a city, and 28% who will vacation at home, Bankrate said.

About 26% of Americans plan to drive instead of fly, take fewer trips and spend fewer days traveling, Bankrate said.

About one in four said they will skip travel this summer, the survey said. Of them, 62% cited higher prices and 58% said they couldn’t afford it, an increase from 48% a year ago. Other reasons cited in the survey were insufficient income, other financial priorities and debt.

Less than one in 10 respondents cited concerns about COVID-19 as the reason they weren’t likely to take a vacation this summer.

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