Vacationers can't escape rising costs at the pump

Two-dollar-a-gallon gas prices are forcing summer travelers to spend big or think smaller.

Fueling Trouble

May 29, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Any thoughts of a stress-free getaway this summer have evaporated for many across the country as quickly as the digits spin upward on gas pumps these days.

For Mary Manning, the beginning of June used to mean the start of monthly road trips to visit family in upstate New York, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg. This summer, the only trips Manning will be taking in her beige Ford Taurus will be to the homes of nearby friends, the doctor's office and the grocery store.

"I love driving," the 75-year-old retired sheriff's deputy said. "But now I have to think twice about taking the car out. I just got back from Mississippi, and it cost me $80 in gas money. I was floored. It used to cost $45. When you're on a fixed income, every dollar counts.

"I don't want to sit at home all summer," said Manning, who lives in North East in Cecil County. "My road trips help me stay young. They keep me active. At this rate, though, I can't afford it. I'm going to find it hard to even do simple pleasures like driving myself to bingo."

But even as pump prices force motorists such as Manning to rethink their driving habits, industry analysts say vacations - a sacred summer ritual for many Americans - will not likely suffer just yet.

A record 30.9 million travelers are expected to take to the road this Memorial Day weekend, the start of the summer vacation season, and leisure travel in general is expected to rise for the first time in years.

That determination to escape for a week or two, however, also brings the understanding that pursuing leisure this year comes with a higher price tag. And it's not just affecting drivers - everyone from airlines to charter buses is feeling the pinch and could pass along the pain to consumers by adding fuel surcharges on top of regular ticket prices.

Even though AAA and the Travel Industry Association of America estimate that higher fuel prices will only add $20 to $30 to the average driving vacation this summer, resort owners say it's too early to tell whether the extra cost will tip the scales against them.

Officials in popular - and relatively close - resort towns such as Ocean City and Deep Creek are hoping for a windfall. At a ride from Baltimore of just 170 miles to the mountains of Garrett County or 130 miles to the beaches of Ocean City, both towns say vacationers who generally take long-distance trips could instead morph into weekend trippers who decide to stay closer to home this year. The majority of visitors to both resorts come from the Baltimore-Washington metro area.

"It's a double-edged sword, really," said Michael C. Noah, director of the Ocean City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's so close to so many people, we could benefit. But if people curb their trips and if prices keep spiking all through summer, it might hurt our fall business.

"Right now, we're more worried about the overall effect on the economy. If it affects jobs, people won't travel as much."

In a recent survey for AAA, the travel association found that summer travelers won't stop traveling. But, AAA found, they might:

Shave a day off their trip.

Take one less trip this summer.

Stay closer to home.

Use a more fuel-efficient car.

Or stay with friends or family to save money on vacation.

Keeping those budget-conscious visitors in mind, many out-of-state resorts are offering gas vouchers to keep their hotel rooms and rental properties booked.

Visit the mountains of northeastern Georgia on $20 worth of gas from Premier Vacation Rentals. Or rent a luxury houseboat from ARAMARK Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas to tour the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and get a whopping $700 in free fuel.

Pocmont Resort and Conference Center is offering $35 to $50 in gas to guests who spend five to seven nights hiking, playing tennis, mini-golfing or swimming in the Pocono Mountains. If it isn't really a vacation without the ocean, Outer Beaches Realty will cut a $35 to $75 check for visitors to use at gas stations or restaurants if they rent houses for $595 and above for a week.

"Everybody's tight right now," said Dea Brown, manager of Outer Beaches' Hatteras office. "We were brainstorming and thought that this is just a little way to help."

But many say the climbing price of fuel has not become an issue yet for those itching to get out of town.

"Gas is not a factor for most people who can afford vacations," said Franklin McKenzie, caretaker at Heritage Cove Cabins, which is playing it safe, nonetheless, by offering free gas for those who come to stay in the shadow of the now-famous Cold Mountain of western North Carolina. "Vacations are the ultimate survivor tool. You need a release. Even those who aren't affluent search for a place where they can go to maintain their sanity.

"Until it hits $5 a gallon, I don't believe it's going to make or break the vacations people take. It's just going to cost more."

That sunny outlook might not last if fuel prices stay high, analysts say.

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