More drivers seen hitting road for Memorial Day: AAA

NEW YORK Tue May 15, 2012 11:40am EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - More Americans will take to the roads over the Memorial Day weekend this year as they benefit from a recent drop in pump prices, travel group AAA forecast on Tuesday, heralding a summer of strong gasoline demand.

About 30.7 million people will drive to destinations 50 miles or more away from home between May 24 and 28, the start of the peak driving season in the United States.

Last year, only 30.3 million people drove to their destinations during the holiday weekend, which serves as an early gauge of summer gasoline sales at pumping stations.

"The overall domestic economic picture continues to improve slightly," Robert L. Darbelnet, AAA president and CEO, said in a statement.

Motorists, however, took a hit from high gasoline prices this spring and will try to save money by staying close to home and cutting entertainment costs, he added.

U.S. gasoline prices averaged $3.73 a gallon on Tuesday, compared with $3.96 a year ago.

The forecast indicates motorists may be in a better position to weather higher prices. Fears that gasoline would hit a record $5 a gallon, fueled by the rising cost of oil early in 2012, have abated but prices are higher than in 2008, when Memorial Day travel fell more than 10 percent due to soaring costs.

The forecast, based on a survey of 50,000 U.S. households, found that more than half of its respondents did not change their travel plans because of high gasoline prices.

The government has projected that U.S. summer gasoline prices will average $3.79 a gallon, 8 cents more than last year but significantly lower than the $4 danger zone beyond which, analysts say, demand will drop significantly.

Latest data from MasterCard shows gasoline at the pump costs about 4 percent less than a year earlier, at an average $3.81 per gallon last week.

The travel group expects 2.5 million people will board flights this holiday weekend, a 5.5 percent drop from the number of air travelers last year.

The total number of vacationers will rise to 34.8 million, equal to the number of travelers in 2010, when the numbers had soared by 14 percent.

(Reporting by Selam Gebrekidan; Editing by John Picinich and Dale Hudson)

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