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AAA: Sequestration to put the squeeze on holiday travel

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Memorial Day travelers will have slightly less company on the roads this year because of the effects of sequestration, travel officials said Tuesday.

About 795,000 motorists are expected to get behind the wheel this weekend, compared to about 800,000 last year — a drop of less than 1 percent.

"There will be an overall reduction of 5,000 fewer people on our highways," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II, standing at the eastern foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a gateway to Eastern Shore destinations. "But that's really not any relief. You won't notice it."

The number of motorists is dwarfed by the more than 10 percent dive in the number of travelers who said they would be flying during the holiday weekend.

Overall, about 874,000 D.C.-area residents are predicted to be traveling this holiday weekend compared to the 890,600 last year, or nearly a 2 percent drop.

While rising gas prices kept travelers closer to home in 2011, this year AAA blames the "sequestration frustration" for the decline in destination seekers.

"We've been so immune in D.C. to the recession," Mr. Townsend said, but with Pentagon employees being forced to furlough 11 days, that's 11 days worth of pay that will be missing from their discretionary spending.

"You have to remember that travel is always discretionary," Mr. Townsend said. "People will not be denied, at least at a certain income level. But it's still 11 days. And it will happen in the third and fourth quarter [of the fiscal year], which is the height of the summer."

A smaller paycheck doesn't necessarily mean zero traveling, but vacationers might stay at a cheaper hotel or cut down on the distance of their trip to save money, he said.

Gas prices, though lower than last year, might still make motorists hesitate to travel. According to AAA numbers, the price of gas is 11 cents lower than it was a year ago — $3.57 for a gallon of self-serve unleaded in the D.C. area, down from $3.68.

"More than ever before, area travelers are relying on highways for their holidays getaways," he said.

Despite the drops in travel numbers, Mr. Townsend said he was hopeful for how the entire holiday season pans out.

"We were nervous," he said of early figures, "but I think we may be even for the Fourth of July and Labor Day. I think people are taking a little bit of a wait-and-see approach."

National traveling numbers might show a similar trend to what happened in the D.C. area, Mr. Townsend said. Those figures are scheduled to be released Wednesday.

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