Labor Day travel forecast: Fewer Americans on the move

Travel this Labor Day holiday could be less stressful for the millions of Americans hitting the roads or heading to the airport, as fewer of us are doing it this year -- lots fewer.

Forecasts call for just 39 million vacationers to jump in the car and head to the hills or the beach. That's 13 percent fewer than last year when 45 million Americans embarked on a Labor Day trip of 50 miles or more, according to projections by AAA, compiled by IHS Global Insight.

The nation's airports will also have fewer travelers. Air travel is expected to fall 20 percent to 1.5 million travelers compared to 1.9 million last year, the report shows. The reduction in airline passengers comes despite a 17 percent drop in air fares.

"There are some things that would make you think that more people would be traveling, but actually a lot fewer are traveling," said Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for AAA New York.

Not only is gasoline cheaper, averaging $2.59 a gallon nationwide for self-service regular-grade fuel, compared to $3.68 a gallon a year ago, but consumers can expect to pay less for hotel rooms and rental cars, Sinclair said.

"There a lot of things out there that would be incentives to make people travel, but still we see this appreciable drop off," he said.

AAA attributes the reduced number of travelers in part to a quirk in the calendar. With the Labor Day holiday falling as late as it possibly can, September 7, many children have already returned to school, and parents are opting not to disrupt schedules to accommodate travel.

As much a factor, however, is the nation's economy. Despite recent upbeat reports showing expansion in manufacturing and the service sector, as well as a brightening housing market, many Americans remain concerned about their jobs.

A report issued Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor showed the unemployment rate ticked up to 9.7 percent in August, as employers cut 216,000 jobs, and analysts predict the nation's jobless rate will likely top 10 percent by early next year.

IHS research shows that Americans willingness to travel this Labor Day weekend is directly proportional to the unemployment rate in their state. In states with lower unemployment rates, more people are traveling, and vice versa.

Those who do journey this holiday weekend will average 645 miles round trip, the IHS travel report says. More than one third of travelers will stay relatively close to home, with expected round-trips of 250 miles or less, while 34 percent of weekend travelers will log between 251 and 700 miles. Some 28 percent will travel more than 700 miles round-trip.

While the Labor Day weekend may be quieter in many destinations than last year, the good news for resorts, hoteliers and restaurants is that more Americans are expected to travel this holiday than on July 4. Typically the busiest automobile travel holiday, only 37 million people took to the road this year for Independence Day, despite gasoline prices that were far below last summer's historic highs of well over $4 a gallon.

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