Economy, gas prices may mean mixed bag for summer getaways

Harold Pennington filled up his pickup for $1.83 per gallon before he and his wife loaded their tow-behind camper and left their South Carolina home for Fargo.

Janet and Harold Pennington
Janet and Harold Pennington with their dogs, Jack and Jill, enjoy a recent day at Lindenwood Park in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Harold Pennington filled up his pickup for $1.83 per gallon before he and his wife loaded their tow-behind camper and left their South Carolina home for Fargo.

The retired telephone lineman said he would have thought twice about making the trip a year ago, when gas prices hit $4 a gallon.

As they drove 1,600 miles across half the country to see their new grandson, they watched gas prices ticking up, to $2.09 by the time their pickup and 30-foot camper rolled into Fargo's Lindenwood Park last week.

"I'm hoping I get home before it gets back to $4 a gallon," Harold joked.

Fortunately for him, gas prices aren't expected to reach last summer's highs.


But the economic recession has some people re-evaluating their vacation plans.

Last summer, Joyce and Ricky Eagle of Warrenton, Va., simply padded their travel budget a little before tooling around the Midwest in their motor home.

This year, gas is considerably cheaper, but the Eagles' 36-foot Holiday Rambler will stay in the driveway. The reason? The software company Ricky works for sliced 20 percent off his paycheck.

"That's cut us way back," Joyce said. The couple bagged plans to fan out this summer with trips to Pennsylvania Dutch country and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

As Americans prune their expenses because of the recession, the family vacation is taking a hit. A third of those surveyed in an AP-Gfk Poll released last week said they had already canceled at least one trip this year because of money.

Staying closer to home

IHS Global Insight, which studies travel habits for AAA, expects Americans to take 20 million fewer trips from April to September and spend $30.3 billion less than last year. And those trips are likely to be shorter.

"If you live in the West, you'll go to the Rockies, but you won't go to New England," said Mark Sedenquist, publisher of, where travelers share tips about how to get the most out of their vacations.


North Dakota AAA spokesman Gene LaDoucer said travel counselors in his office are busy helping people plan vacations via automobile. A lot of them are staying within a 600- to 800-mile radius, he said.

"We feel it's going to be a strong summer vacation season," LaDoucer said. "What appears to be down is air travel and larger cruises and tours."

Fewer and shorter vacations will hurt the economy. Summer travelers are the lifeblood of countless hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, campgrounds and every touristy spot in between.

The pullback is expected even though travel will be cheaper. The average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gas in the United States was $2.28 a gallon Friday, well below the $3.78 mark at this time last year.

Fargo-Moorhead's average gas price was $2.13, up nearly 20 cents from a month ago but $1.48 cheaper than at this time last year.

LaDoucer said he doesn't expects gas prices to spike this summer, thanks to strong inventories of crude oil and gasoline, excess refining capacity and flat demand. There will be some upward pressure on prices as the busy travel season nears, he said.

"We don't think that, on average, we will see anything above $2.50 or so a gallon," he said.

A strong desire to roam


Nationally, hotels were cheaper early this year compared with last year: 34 percent cheaper in Las Vegas, 22 percent in New York, 16 percent in San Diego and 14 percent in Orlando, Fla., according to Expedia Inc.

In all, a seven-day road trip from Philadelphia to Orlando and back is expected to cost $272 less than last year.

Of course, it's not easy staying home. Every summer, Joyce Eagle stuffs the Rambler's on-board refrigerator with taco meat, corn casseroles and milk before setting out to roam the countryside.

Their plush, wood-paneled ride guzzles a gallon of gas every eight miles or so, but it's worth it, she said. They might save a few hundred dollars if they went by car, but then they'd have to pay for hotels and restaurants. It just wouldn't be the same.

"That's the one thing that's enjoyment for us, just getting out and enjoying the RV," she said.

While his 401(k) is "taking a beating," Pennington said the economy's woes weren't as big of a factor as gas prices in determining summer travel plans. From Fargo, he and his wife will take the pickup - which gets about 10 miles per gallon while pulling the camper - to Buffalo, N.Y., to visit another new grandchild.

Sarah Puffer, 23, also felt the pinch this year, but she said she's still determined to have an adventure this summer.

Instead of a monthlong meander through a dozen states, the teacher from Alaska said she and two friends will pile into her dad's Ford Focus and dash around the country, hoping to cover the same territory in half the time.

"We really want to get out there and see just everything," she said. "Because of the bad economy, we don't know if everything is possible."

Trend may help area

LaDoucer said the vacation belt-tightening may bode well for North Dakota, which AAA has recognized three years in a row as the least expensive place for a family of four to vacation. The state is promoting itself as an affordable destination, and state Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman recently said she's cautiously optimistic about this year's tourist season, despite a rocky start blamed partially on snow and flooding.

"People looking to stretch their vacation dollars could very well be looking at North Dakota, where they can have more of a vacation, a longer vacation, and still stay within their family budget," LaDoucer said.

Reservations at lake resorts in Minnesota's Otter Tail County are "holding pretty good," said Jane Aschnewitz of the Otter Tail Country Tourism Association.

"Some are saying they're having really, really good luck," she said. "Some are catching the people that used to go a lot farther for vacations that now are stopping closer."

If gas prices rise no more than another 50 cents, "It'll make a big difference to us, that's for sure," she said.

Janice Croze, 35, of British Columbia, said she'd love to fly to Hawaii like she did when her son was 3. Instead, she and her husband will pack the kids in their Dodge Grand Caravan and head for their mother's cabin in the interior of the province, six hours away.

Gas is cheaper than plane tickets this year, she said. And there are other perks to driving.

"When you're in your car, you're in control," Croze said. "And when you have little kids, it's far more convenient. It's easier to change a baby in a car, I find, than in an airplane."

As for the Eagles, Ricky said he plans to spend the summer in his wood shop, building coffee tables and other furniture fit for the interior of his RV.

"Of course, I'd rather be out on the road," he said. "But I'm just apprehensive about my job and the viability of the company that I work for. Obviously, that tempers a lot of the excitement you feel when you think of summer."

Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki and The Associated Press contributed to this article

Copyright © 2009 The Forum. All rights reserved. AP contributed to this report.

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