ATLANTA — Americans aren't in the mood to spend much on travel this summer.
More people are expected to hit the road than did last year, but their budgets will be tighter because of high unemployment, stock markets in retreat and a still-fragile economy. The Commerce Department said Friday that consumer spending was stagnant in April and is at its weakest level in seven months. The savings rate rose last month, showing that more people are holding on to their money in uncertain economic times.
Auto club AAA said about 28 million Americans would take road trips over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, 1.6 million more than last year.
AAA estimates that families will spend an average of $809 on summer travel, compared with $876 in 2009, even though flying is more expensive than it was a year ago.
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They're knocking down the cost, travel agents say, by staying closer to home, choosing less-expensive transportation or picking destinations based on the best fares and lodging they can find.
In summers past, Dennis Chang, 33, and his family visited Disney World or Jamaica. This year, with his wife recently out of work, the clothing designer from Laurel, Md., says the more likely destination for this summer is Virginia Beach, Va., a four-hour drive away, with sandwiches in the car and hunting for discounted tickets to theme parks along the route.
Debbie Dixson, an airline bag checker from St. Louis, can get cheap tickets to New York or Paris through her job. But the cost of food, lodging and entertainment in a big city would quickly wipe out whatever she saved. So she and her husband will instead drive to Douglas, Mich., to meet their six kids for a week's stay in a cabin along Lake Michigan.
Although the economy is recovering, travel has bounced back slowly, says Steve Piraino, senior economist at IHS Global Insight. His firm attributes it to high unemployment, still hovering near 10 percent.
Hotels and resorts are trying to entice people into longer stays with lower rates or discounts at restaurants and spas. As a result, the average room rate is down slightly to about $95, according to travel research firm STR. It was $107 two years ago.
In states from Texas to Florida that are threatened by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, resorts are offering free golf and complimentary room nights. Some have promised a full refund if the oil hits popular beaches.
The vast majority of Americans drive to their summer vacation spots. The nationwide average for gas is $2.75 a gallon, and analysts think it could fall to $2.65 by July 4.
For fliers, finding a deal will be more difficult. During the recession, airlines cut back on the number of planes they fly, and fewer available seats means higher fares. From June through August, domestic airfares are 24 percent higher than last year, averaging $321 per round trip, according to fare-tracking Web site Bing Travel.
Not everyone is cutting back, particularly young professionals, people with stable jobs and the affluent, according to recent travel surveys.
If the job market improves, more people will be able to travel, Piraino's firm says. And they'll spend more to do so.