Hamilton. NJ – Since time immemorial - or so it seems - Memorial Day has been hailed as the unofficial kick-off of the summer vacation and driving season. With Memorial Day less than six weeks away, speculation is rampant about how the substantial increases in the price of fuels may already be impacting the vacation plans of American families, notes AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“The skyrocketing cost of motor fuels could very well cast a shadow on the summer vacation plans of a sizeable number of American families and transform frequent fliers into frugal travelers,” said Tracy E. Noble, spokesperson for AAA Mid-Atlantic.  “As was the case in 2008, the cost of gas may cause some people to altogether alter or cancel their vacation plans.  Some people have planned ahead and already locked in their vacation plans, and they are likely to keep them.”

This year the price of fuel, ranging from gasoline to diesel fuel to jet fuel, has skyrocketed, pushing up the costs of a road trip and airline ticket prices. Already this spring, a half dozen states and the District of Columbia now average $4 or more for a gallon of regular gasoline. In contrast, during 2008 the combination of the high cost of fuel, the onset of the recession and the subsequent economic downturn caused Americans to drive, travel and fly far less during the year, and eroded the discretionary income that many Americans would have spent on travel, according to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index (LTI) at the time.   

That year the nation and the travel industry witnessed a drastic decline in the number of Americans traveling for all five of the major travel holidays (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas), according to year-to-year travel forecasts from AAA. 

From coast to coast, the cost of gasoline peaked at $4.11 on July 17, 2008. That is still the highest recorded average price of a gallon. Similarly, the cost of a gallon of diesel fuel reached its highest ever recorded price that same day, cresting at $4.85 per gallon.

Now that we have reached Passover and Easter Week (it’s also Spring Break week for many students and their families), would-be travelers are starting to wonder if history will repeat itself during 2011?  The question looms large this spring and summer, said Noble. “After all, motorists have never seen gasoline prices this high in April and so costly this far away from the start of the Memorial Day holiday weekend/summer driving season.”

Nationwide, pump prices are nearly a dollar higher (98 cents, to be exact) than this time last year, according to the latest Daily Fuel Gauge Report from AAA Mid-Atlantic.  Inauspiciously, gasoline prices are also “93 cents  a gallon above the spring/summer peak of one year ago, when gasoline rose to $2.93 per gallon on May 6,” according to an oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS), which provides daily fuel prices data to AAA.  Equally foreboding, some domestic airlines have adjusted their ticket prices more than a half dozen times so far this year.  Fares have spiked $70 on some routes, according to news reports.

This spring, as in 2008, the high gasoline prices appear to be dampening our society’s intent to travel, notes AAA.  Heading to Memorial Day weekend in 2008, American motorists and fliers encountered sticker shock.  Back then, pump prices soared to an average of $3.94 a gallon across the nation. 

During the Memorial Day weekend of 2008 Americans spent more than $1.5-billion per day for fuel for the first time ever.  Air passengers also encountered high ticket prices as air fares over the Memorial Day holiday weekend rose eight percent over the previous Memorial Day holiday weekend.

Memorial Day is a month and a half away, and motorists and consumers are already spending about $1.45-billion each day on fuel purchases, compared with an expenditure of about $1.08-billion per day one year ago, according to calculations by OPIS.  This time around, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) is forecasting pump prices will peak in the neighborhood of $3.91 in early summer. Many energy experts believe speculation, rather than the law of supply and demand, has caused this year’s spike in fuel prices. The cost factor will have an impact on whether families will take a quick family vacation this summer.

As in 2008, AAA believes that many cost-conscious travelers will try to offset the soaring cost of fuel and the rising airline ticket prices by choosing to stay in less expensive hotels, by dining in reasonably priced restaurants, and by traveling closer to home this summer.

Ironically, the spike in fuel prices is occurring as the U.S. economy has been witnessing a gradual recovery from the recession and a reversal of two consecutive years of travel declines, noted the spokesperson for the leisure travel organization. Even so, motorists were also returning to the highways and roadways in droves.

For example, Americans drove three trillion miles last year (2010), according to data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).  Cumulative travel for 2010 is up by 0.7 percent (20.5 billion vehicle miles).  It is an indication that the economy is improving in some quarters, as more people drive to job sites and vacation spots, Noble added.  Will the high cost of fuel undo this?  Stay tuned. AAA is not slated to release its official summer travel forecast until next month.