- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2008

If travelers think high gas prices and airline fuel surcharges will keep the nation’s highways wide open and airports hassle-free this Fourth of July weekend, they are wrong.

Record gasoline prices and soaring airfares will deter few Americans from traveling over the holiday weekend, according to AAA’s annual Fourth of July travel forecast.

AAA, which based its forecast on results from an online survey , predicted that the number of people traveling this holiday weekend will decrease 1.3 percent from the same period last year. That means about 550,000 fewer people will be cruising the nation’s skies and roadways, said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“Given the outrageous gas and airlines prices people are faced with, it’s pretty impressive,” Mr. Anderson said. “People are saying, ‘Things are bad, but not bad enough to keep me from getting away for the holiday.’”

AAA predicts 40.5 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more over the weekend compared with the 41 million who traveled last year. That would be the first drop in 10 years.

Mr. Anderson said the decline in travel would probably be steeper if the holiday fell on a weekday other than Friday. Some households might not be able to pay for a trip while missing several days of work, but a three-day weekend makes it easier to go out of town.

An estimated 34.2 million people intend to be on the move this weekend, despite skyrocketing gasoline prices. The average retail price for regular gas was $4.09 per gallon Tuesday, $1.12 more than a year ago, according to AAA.

Rudy Maxa, host of the PBS travel show “Rudy Maxa´s World,” said people may be driving but they are spending their money wisely.

“People are slicing and dicing their travel options,” he said. “They’re looking at it more carefully than ever.”

Enterprise Rent-A-Car has seen a 20 percent jump in reservations this year as customers take advantage of the company’s large fleet of fuel-efficient cars and of renting larger automobiles, Mr. Maxa said.

Sheri Stewart plans to drive from her home in Fairfax to Georgia and Florida this weekend with her husband and three children.

Under normal conditions, her family would fly. But with soaring ticket prices and unpredictable service, she figured driving made more sense this year.

“I can’t imagine being stuck in an airport with three kids running around,” Mrs. Stewart said.

About 4.54 million Americans expect to travel by air this weekend, compared with 4.64 million last year. But most travelers won’t notice the 2.3 percent drop, according to Elizabeth Merida, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, a D.C. trade group that represents commercial airlines.

Planes will be about 85 percent full this weekend, about the same as last year, Ms. Merida said.

Security lines may be a little longer, though, considering the Transportation Security Administration announced new security steps last month. Now, there are more random secondary screening searches in which travelers either get a pat down or go through a whole-body scanning machine.

Passengers will also have to adjust to new baggage rules, as most major airlines have started charging extra fees for baggage to cope with soaring fuel costs.

Nearly 1.7 million people plan to travel by train or bus this weekend, a 60,000 decrease from last year, according to the AAA survey. Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell said many trains in the busy Northeast Corridor are sold out through Sunday. Travelers who are fed up with rising gas prices and airline fees are jumping aboard trains as an alternative.

“There seems to be an upward trend in recent months,” Ms. Connell said, and May was the biggest month in the company’s 37-year history with ticket revenue up 16 percent and ridership up 12 percent over last year.

More than 670,000 hardy Washington-area residents will be traveling this Fourth of July holiday, according to AAA´s forecast.

“What we are seeing is that people are choosing to travel despite the truly adverse challenges that are out there,” said Mr. Anderson of AAA.

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