Low pump prices lure Americans back to the road

NEW YORK Fri May 22, 2009 1:17pm EDT

Vehicles approaching a New Jersey toll booth in a file photo. REUTERS/File

Vehicles approaching a New Jersey toll booth in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/File

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Many Americans will rediscover their love of the open road this Memorial Day holiday weekend, prompted in part by gasoline prices that are nearly 40 percent lower than last year.

"We're seeing that more people are actually traveling this year -- on Memorial Day specifically, but also just making travel plans for the summer -- than was the case last year and I think that's largely attributable to gas prices," said Tom Foster, executive editor at Budget Travel magazine.

The number of Americans hitting the road for the holiday will jump 2.7 percent this year to 27 million despite the effects of the economic recession, according to a survey conducted by travel and auto group AAA.

Memorial Day, which falls on May 25 this year, traditionally kicks off the summer driving season when gasoline demand in the world's top oil consumer peaks.

Last year, gasoline prices approaching $4 per gallon discouraged many Americans from taking road trips.

Average U.S. gasoline prices on Friday were $2.39 per gallon, down 37 percent from $3.83 from a year ago, according to AAA.

The group expects prices as high as $2.50 per gallon for gasoline prices this summer, in contrast with last summer when prices topped $4 per gallon.

The increase in travel may indicate that things are looking up for American consumers, with respondents to AAA's Memorial Day travel Day saying they are likely to spend an average of $1,000 during their holiday, compared with $850 last year.

"They must be feeling just a little bit better overall about their personal economic situations than at this time last year," said Geoff Sundstrom, the director of AAA public relations.

Although they are taking trips, Americans are making some concessions to the bad economy.

"Fewer people are planning long-haul trips right now because those trips are traditionally more expensive," Foster said.

The number of people who plan to travel by air on Memorial Day declined by 1 percent compared with last year, according to AAA's survey.

But the good news for those wanting to travel is that airlines looking to fill seats are offering deals.

"Even if today you wanted to book something for Memorial Day weekend, you could probably find a great deal," Foster said.

(Reporting by Rebekah Kebede; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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