With her 11-year-old cat, Prince, resting on the center console of her Honda CR-V, Michele Peters recently drove 13 hours south from her home in Chesapeake, Va., to Osprey, Fla., for some much-needed rest and relaxation.
It had been five years since Ms. Peters, 67, enjoyed a long vacation, and $4 for a gallon of gas wasn’t going to stand in her way. “Why I was coming down here — the peace and tranquillity — was worth 10 times that,” she said earlier this month, while overlooking Little Sarasota Bay.
Ms. Peters, a legal aid attorney, estimated that in recent years she would have paid around $60 on fuel each way of her roughly 950-mile drive, but with recent hike in gas prices, the cost of her trip almost doubled. She ended up paying around $115 on gas each way.
Gas prices hit historic highs this month. The average cost of a gallon of gas in the United States on March 11 was $4.33, the highest price ever recorded by AAA, the automobile owners group. The national average for a gallon of gas now hovers around $4.24. Compared to the average price last October, around $3.20, drivers in the United States are facing a nearly 33 percent hike to fill their tanks.
But as in years past, the rise in gas prices is not expected to dampen the allure of the open road. Especially with the arrival of spring break and the expectation of summer vacation, many road trippers plan to follow through with their original itineraries — or they will make adjustments by taking shorter routes, choosing destinations closer to home, and spending less on lodging, food and other purchases.
“Historically, gas prices have had very little, if any impact on travel,” wrote Cheryl Schutz, vice president of travel insights at the market research firm MMGY Global, over email. “People may change what they spend money on, but they will still travel.”
Road trips are now more popular than they were in 2019, before the pandemic, according to GPS car data collected by the location data company Arrivalist. The company’s “Daily Travel Index” has tracked travel patterns in the United States since April 2020, and recently added trending data from 2019. In mid-March, road-trip activity — measured as when a driver travels a minimum of 50 miles and spends a minimum of two hours at his or her destination — was higher than the index’s 28-day rolling average, the first time in two years. And nearly 80 percent of 1,096 Americans surveyed earlier in March by the travel site The Vacationer say they plan on taking a summer road trip.
“On the immediate horizon, travelers have not changed their plans,” said Devin Gladden, a spokesman with AAA. “They are expecting costs to be higher. They had these trips planned and they want to follow through with them.”
James Willamor, 42, expects to keep his spring break itinerary to New Mexico. Next month, he plans to travel with his two children from their home in Raleigh, N.C., in his Subaru Outback, and visit the White Sands, Guadalupe Peak and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks and camp at state parks along the way.
“Even with gas prices going up, it would be hard to fly somewhere and get hotels for two weeks for nearly the same price,” said Mr. Willamor, who works in information technology support.
In recent weeks, Mr. Willamor has cut down on unnecessary local driving and is working from home a few days a week. On the road, he checks pump prices on the GasBuddy app and uses rewards programs to save a few cents on each gallon. Mr. Willamor also has a credit card with 2 percent cash back on gas purchases and his family plans to pack lunches and cook dinners at campsites. “Combine all that and we will save a little bit,” he said, estimating that he will spend around $800 on fuel during his trip.
It’s expected that gas prices will continue to be expensive this summer. In the spring, gas stations will switch to summer-grade fuel, a more expensive, environmentally friendly blend that’s better for ozone levels during hot months. It will add 7 to 10 cents per gallon, according to Mr. Gladden of AAA.
Travel Trends That Will Define 2022
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Looking ahead. As governments across the world loosen coronavirus restrictions, the travel industry hopes this will be the year that travel comes roaring back. Here is what to expect:
A greater roadblock for some potential road-trippers is the continuing shortage of rental cars.
Low fleet inventories, coupled with supply-chain issues for new cars and car parts, continue to plague companies as they struggle with continuing high demand. Rising costs are a result. In February, the average rental car rate was $75 per day on the travel booking website Kayak, a 50 percent increase compared to the $50 average in February 2019.
Travel agents who once booked rental cars for clients are considering alternatives.
“There’s different ways to work around the situation,” said Mary Cropper, an agent at Audley Travel in Boston who plans custom road trips in the Southwest. To avoid rental cars in Las Vegas and Tucson, Ariz., both popular with tourists, she’ll arrange for her clients to use free hotel shuttles from the airport and organize tour groups that pick up and drop off clients at their lodging. She’ll book rental cars only for destinations farther afield, like the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley in Utah.
“It’s really just about making sure it’s as efficient as possible,” Ms. Cropper said about travel planning this year. “I can tell people are really itching to get out of town and they are open to ideas.”