Cost may depress July 4th travel

Hotel, air, car rental charges up this year

The calendar and the economy are conspiring to make this year’s Fourth of July holiday a bit of a dud for business, according to a new survey released late last week.

Fewer Americans will be making Independence Day travel plans this year due to a shorter holiday period and lingering consumer uncertainty, according to the travel group AAA.

Unlike 2012, when the holiday fell on Wednesday and many workers stretched their vacations into a five-day holiday, the holiday this year is on Thursday, one day closer to the weekend. The result: a likely decline of travel volume and average distance traveled, according to the AAA survey, down from 723 miles last year to 613 miles.

The projected 40.8 million American travelers, 0.8 percent less than last year’s 41.1 million, will also face increases in hotel, car rental and airfare prices, according to the travel group.

With schools out for the summer, the Fourth of July is traditionally the biggest summer getaway date of the season, with some 6 million more Americans traveling than on Memorial Day. AAA projects that more than 34 million Americans will go by car, while 3.07 million will fly. For cities that put on spectacular Fourth of July fireworks displays, including Washington, Boston and San Diego, the patriotic holiday is also a major annual contributor to local cash registers and tax coffers.

AAA President Robert Darbelnet said that this year’s celebrations will be muted slightly by the lingering effects of government “sequester” budget cuts and a bigger tax bite facing most Americans.

Economic growth “is not robust enough to offset the impact of the sequester and the effect of the end of the payroll tax cut on American families,” Mr. Darbelnet said.

Still, the average traveler is expected to spend $747 over the holiday break.

Gas prices are not likely to be a major inhibiting factor in the travel volume this year, up just slightly from the averages of 2012. But weekend daily car rental rates and airfares have jumped, up 29 percent and 6 percent, respectively, over 2012.

Still, because schools are out across the U.S., the Fourth of July is traditionally the most popular travel holiday of the summer. Most Americans will make their getaway by car: Roughly 34.4 million will take to the road, a 0.7 percent decrease from 2012. An additional 3.07 million travelers are likely to fly, a slight increase over last year.

Airlines for America, the trade group for most major U.S. carriers, predicted in its own summer travel forecast that more people would take to the skies this year than in 2012. It attributes the bump to several factors, including increasing household net worth, businesses reaping higher profits and airlines doing a better job of getting passengers to their destinations on time.

And deal-savvy travelers can still snag lower travel prices for the upcoming holiday. Discount travel site Hotwire revealed last week its top five list of Independence Day destinations based on the best hotel deals booked through its website on June 3.

“Since Independence Day falls on a Thursday, travelers can get the biggest bang for their buck by lengthening their holiday with a four- or five-day weekend. To help get Americans that extra vacation this year, several major cities that typically see high prices during this holiday are instead topping the list of price drops,” Hotwire announced.

Hotwire’s top two destinations are Chicago and Portland, Ore., with an average hotel booking price of $111 and $105, respectively — an 11 and 10 percent price drop, respectively, compared to last year. The other three cities are Boston (a 7 percent drop to $158), Seattle (down 5 percent to $122) and Los Angeles (a 3 percent decline to $100).

Bargains can fluctuate from day to day, however. For example, despite making Hotwire’s “best deals” hotel list, Los Angeles also made the website’s “worst deals” list when based on Hotwire hotel bookings made on June 20. The other destinations with the highest increase in average hotel prices, based on the June 20 bookings, were Austin, Texas; New Orleans; Milwaukee and Nashville, Tenn.

Not all travel watchdogs are reporting price hikes for the summer’s top holiday. CheapAir.com CEO Jeff Klee said July Fourth airfares are down an average 5.9 percent this year compared to last year. CheapAir data shows that of the top 141 destinations, 126 have lower fares than last year, while just 15 have higher fares.

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