U.S. Travelers Say Fuel Prices Keep Them Closer To Home This Summer

Whether traveling for business or pleasure this summer, rapidly escalating fuel costs — gas is now above $4 a gallon at many West Coast locations — will cause travelers around the nation to cut back on trips, according to a new survey by the nonprofit U.S. Travel Association.

The survey found that of vacationers who plan to travel by car this summer, 54 percent said an increase in gas prices would affect their summer leisure travel plans, while more than 25 percent of business travelers said higher gas prices would affect their summer business travel plans.

The survey questioned 2,500 people around the country, and had an error rate of plus or minus 2 percent.

Furthermore, higher airfares due to rising oil prices will impact leisure travelers more than business travelers, according to the survey. About 43 percent of leisure travelers who plan to fly said that an increase in airfare due to higher oil prices would affect their summer travel plans; 25 percent of business travelers said their plans would be affected.

Carroll Rheem, research director for PhoCusWright, a travel research and analysis company, isn’t surprised by the survey results. High fuel prices have emerged as a threat to several segments of travel, she said, including long road trips and travel requiring flights.

“I think it’s definitely a potential damper to summer travel and the travel industry,” she said. “It’s a little bit frustrating to watch. We’ve been waiting for this recovery, and as soon as economic factors improve, the price of gas rises.”

Though it’s a bit hard to predict at this point, tourism destinations only accessible by plane, like Hawaii, may well feel the pinch as consumers decide to stay closer to home when faced with expensive tickets, Rheem said. “Travelers who might have flown, they’ll be grounded,” she said. “Especially families who are buying four tickets instead of two.”

On the other hand, national parks and camping destinations may well see a boost this summer as families look for more economical vacations, she said.

Nancy White, a Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman for AAA, said higher fuel prices will change some behavior on the part of travelers, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much.

“At this point, it’s still a bit difficult to pinpoint where gas prices will end up” by the summer, White said. “From what we’ve seen from our travel counselors, the picture is more encouraging. We have 7,000 travel counselors at 1,000 branch offices, and we did a quick poll of them. They told us AAA members are not canceling trips. They are altering distances (driven), and perhaps number of destinations they go to. It’s still a kind of wait and see as to what the impact will eventually be.”

Their travel agents have noticed that consumers interested in purchasing airline tickets are closely watching fares but holding back on booking flights in anticipation that fares may come down, according to other AAA officials.

But don’t wait for any major airfare sales, Rheem cautioned. “The airlines are very willing to cut back capacity rather than lower fares to ensure profits,” she said. “They’d rather cancel a flight then run it half full. They just can’t afford to do that anymore.”

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