Travel

For vacationers, it's shaping up as another scaled-back summer

Last Memorial Day, Ronald Dolly spent the long weekend in Miami Beach, Fla., with two friends. This year, the destination is the same, but the quarters are closer: 11 people, two cars, one hotel room.

"There are a lot of us, so it will be a lot cheaper," Dolly, a student from the Atlanta area who studies health care management, said Friday. He figured the trip would work out to an average of less than $40 per person.

Welcome to another scaled-back summer of travel. More people will hit the road than did last year, but their budgets will be even tighter than in 2009, thanks to persistently high unemployment, stock markets in retreat and the fragile economy.

Auto club AAA says about 32.1 million Americans will travel over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, roughly 5 percent more than last year. Families will spend an average of $809, or $67 less than a year ago.

They're knocking down the cost, travel agents say, by staying closer to home, choosing less-expensive modes of transportation or by picking destinations based on the best fares and lodging they can find.

While the economy is recovering, travel has bounced back slowly, says Steve Piraino, senior economist at IHS Global Insight. His firm attributes it to high unemployment, still hovering near 10 percent.

The Commerce Department said Friday that consumer spending was stagnant in April and is at its weakest level in seven months. The savings rate rose last month, showing that more people are holding on to their money in uncertain economic times.

Hotels and resorts are trying to entice people into longer stays with lower rates or discounts at restaurants and spas. As a result, the average room rate is down slightly to about $95, according to travel research firm STR. It was $107 just two years ago.

In states from Texas to Florida that are threatened by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, resorts are offering free golf and complimentary room nights. Some have promised a full refund if the oil hits popular beaches.

The vast majority of Americans drive to their summer vacation spots, and they should get a break at the pump in the weeks ahead. The nationwide average for gas is $2.75 a gallon, and analysts think it could fall as low as $2.65 by July 4.

AAA says about 28 million Americans will take road trips over the holiday weekend, 1.6 million more than last year. About 2.15 million will fly, up slightly from a year ago.

If the job market improves, more people will be able to travel, Piraino's firm says. And they'll spend more to do so. But until then, many will opt to drive instead of fly.

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