May 21 2012 by Chris McGinnis
Rapidly falling gasoline prices are prompting Americans to cast away their economic fears and hit the road on vacation this summer... in droves! As a matter of fact, advance bookings for trips from June through August at Best Western are up a whopping 22% compared to this time last year.
Across the US, gas prices are tumbling. Remember back in April when the price per gallon neared the psychological limit of $4? Everyone was predicting that it could reach $5 by the peak summer driving season...
In an unusual turn of events, we are seeing gas prices DECLINE as we lead up to the summer travel season. This week, the average price per gallon is $3.71--that's down about .25 cents since April.
My advice for summer trips:
>Fly or drive? Lower gasoline prices are tipping the scale toward driving (vs. flying) vacations this summer. Gas is currently most expensive (over $4 per gallon) on the West Coast and in metropolitan areas around Chicago and New York. By contrast, the lowest prices are in the South, Gulf Coast and Midwest, where the price per gallon is running as low as $3.40. By Memorial Day, the national average should be at around $3.60. If you still can't decide whether to fly or drive, use helpful tools like the Fly or Drive Calculator, which takes variables such as distance, gas mileage and number of travelers into account.
>Air Travel: Airlines are hesitant to lower fares because demand is still strong, and they have made big cuts in capacity lately. Average domestic summer fares are in the $500 range, compared to the average of about $300. To get the few deals left, travel mid-day, mid-week, and before June 15 or after August 24. Airfares to/from Europe during July and August are currently running at about $1500 round trip--but keep an eye out for last minute discounting as economically worried Europeans stay closer to home, thereby reducing demand.
>Finding great deals: Packing up the car and hitting the road with the family could be the best vacation bargain this summer. If you are vacationing by car this summer, consider traveling where gas prices are lowest: The Midwest, South and Gulf Coast. Also, consider off-season destinations such at Rocky Mountain ski resorts or desert spas where rates can be discounted as much as 80% during the heat of the summer. Due to a decline in visitors from Europe, Las Vegas could offer some great values this summer--hotel rates are already down about 15%. Now that the Gulf Coast beaches or cities like New Orleans have much of their marketing costs subsidized by BP, those cost savings could be passed on to travelers--which means great deals AND some of the lowest gasoline prices in the country. (Just beware of driving along coastal highways during summer weekends--it can be brutal.)
>Hotels: Hotel prices are up slightly compared to last year--from 4% to 8%. You'll get the best deal if you choose those that offer what I call "the big three" amenities: Free wi-fi, free breakfast and free parking. A family of four can start the day off saving about $50 if staying at a hotel with free breakfast and wi-fi. That should be enough to buy a tank of gas this summer. Or pay half your hotel bill with average rates hovering around $100 this summer.
>Travel Timing: This year, the peak summer travel season begins around June 15 and lasts until about August 24--if you can squeeze your trip in before or after that, you're likely to find the best deals on both airfare and lodging.
Chris McGinnis is Best Western's travel trends expert and business travel blogger on youmustbetrippin.com