Calendar, economy to dampen holiday travel

In Bradenton, AAA Destination Specialist Laura Dreier helps James Woodrow and John Woodrow with travel arrangements for an upcoming vacation.
In Bradenton, AAA Destination Specialist Laura Dreier helps James Woodrow and John Woodrow with travel arrangements for an upcoming vacation. Grant Jefferies / Bradenton Herald

MANATEE — Oscar Perez spent last Labor Day weekend visiting family members in Miami, but this year he's planning on staying at his Sarasota home.

The reason: The landscaping business he works for has cut his hours because of the slow economy.

"I can't afford it, so I'm staying home and chilling out," Perez said while fueling his car at a Bradenton gas station Wednesday.

That's one reason why AAA expects fewer people to travel during the upcoming holiday weekend, considered the unofficial end of summer, than last year.

AAA estimated that 39.1 million Americans will venture at least 50 miles from home between Sept. 3 and Sept. 7. While that would be 13.3 percent below last year’s 45.1 million, it still would be the third-strongest Labor Day weekend this decade.

About 3.43 million of those are expected in AAA Auto Club South's territory of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, a drop-off of 22 percent from last year.

The local auto club mostly blamed the projected declines on a calendar quirk: Labor Day falls on Sept. 7 this year, the latest date possible.

"The economy plays a role in it, but the difference we're seeing is due to the fact the holiday falls so late in the year," said Gregg Laskoski, the local club's managing director of public and government relations. "If the kids are already in school, it's less likely that families are going to be planning a family vacation over Labor Day."

But he acknowledged that likely isn't as strong a factor in Florida, where the school year historically begins before Labor Day.

Several motorists Wednesday said the biggest factor in Labor Day travel plans was finances, not the calendar.

"I think it's more the economy and gas prices," Fred Devore of Polk County said as he shopped at Citgo Dash In, Dash Out, on 66th Street Court East.

But AAA said gas prices have dropped notably since last year. The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded is more than $1 cheaper than a year ago, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service.

It's also possible that fewer people will be traveling during Labor Day weekend because they've already had their summer vacation, Laskoski said. AAA had projected higher summer travel this year because of lower gas prices, higher consumer confidence and pent-up demand from those who postponed vacations last year.

Still, the weak economy continues to dampen travel demand locally.

At the Seaside Inn Beach Resort in Bradenton Beach, "it's a little bit slower than usual" ahead of the Labor Day weekend, said Brittany Znaccko, a reservations agent.

That has prompted the 10-room resort to waive its customary three-night minimum stay requirement for holiday weekends in hopes of attracting more last-minute reservations, she said. AAA said lower airfares and hotel rates likely will spur more last-minute holiday travel. Airfares are projected to be 17 percent lower than 2008, while hotel rates are off by an estimated 12 percent.

The AAA travel projections are based on an IHS Global Insight survey of 1,350 U.S. households.