More Americans will hit the road this holiday weekend than a year ago, and they'll have a bit more money to spend thanks to lower gas prices.
Memorial Day kicks off the summer travel season, and since pump prices never reached $5 a gallon as some feared, economists say travelers are likely to dine out or shop more once they pull off the road.
About 30.7 million people will drive more than 50 miles for Memorial Day trips, according to auto club AAA. That's 400,000 more than last year, a jump AAA attributes to improvement in the economy and consumer attitudes. The number of holiday travelers grows to 34.8 million when you include planes, trains and other means of transportation.
A drop in gas prices encouraged Americans to spend more at restaurants and bars in April. And that trend could continue over the holiday. Pump prices are down 27 cents since their peak in early April, to $3.67 a gallon, where they're likely to stay this weekend, predicts Tom Kloza, the chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service. That's 12 cents cheaper than last year.
In the Buffalo area, gas prices averaged $3.90.
Over the weekend, U.S. drivers will burn about 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline -- and spend $144 million less on gas than last year.
Restaurants, movie theaters and retailers hope some of that savings goes to them.
Just last month, AAA and IHS Global Insight, the firm that analyzed the AAA study, were expecting travelers to spend less on entertainment, dining and shopping on vacation and devote more time to family and friends.
Now, travelers might take longer trips or spend more on other things "because there's more money left in their pocket," said John Larson, vice president for IHS.
Still, most people need to restrict their travel budgets. For many, incomes are growing only slightly if at all. Household debt remains high.
While drivers may feel relief at the pump, gas still isn't cheap. Besides last year, the only other time gas was more expensive on Memorial Day was 2008, when it eventually climbed to a record of $4.11 per gallon. This year, gas shot up by 66 cents from January through early April because of a spike in oil prices.
As a result, many people were skittish about planning long road trips. Half of those surveyed by AAA said they'll travel less than 400 miles. They might be tempted to drive farther -- a fill-up costs about $4 to $5 less than in early April when gas peaked at an average of $3.94.
How far people travel might also depend on where they live. The difference in gas prices around the country is far wider than normal this year, Kloza said. In states like South Carolina, drivers could be paying as low as $3.10. Meanwhile, refinery problems on the West Coast -- where prices usually exceed the national average anyway -- have kept prices especially high there. West Coast drivers could be paying as much as $4.50 per gallon this weekend.
Some people who would normally fly are planning to drive instead. They're balking at higher ticket prices, and AAA forecasts a 5.5 percent decline in air travel within the U.S. this Memorial Day. U.S. airlines spent 8 percent more on fuel in the first quarter, on top of a 26 percent increase last year, government data show. They're passing that expense along to passengers.
The average airfare for North American flights: $291.04 per round trip, including taxes, according to travel site Kayark.com. That's up 23 percent from last year.