Travelers crowd the ticket counter at Portland International Airport in Oregon. The total number of holiday travelers is predicted at 34.8 million this weekend.
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NEW YORK -- More Americans will hit the road this holiday weekend than a year ago and they'll have a bit more money to spend thanks to lower gas prices.
Drivers on the West Coast such as these in the Los Angeles area could pay as much as $4.50 a gallon this weekend because refinery problems have kept prices high.
Memorial Day kicks off the summer travel season and because pump prices never reached $4 or $5 a gallon as feared, economists say travelers are likely to dine out or shop more often.
About 30.7 million people will drive more than 50 miles for Memorial Day trips, according to auto club AAA.
That's 400,000 more than last year, a jump AAA attributes to improvement in the economy and consumer attitudes. The number of holiday travelers grows to 34.8 million planes, trains, and other means of transportation are included.
A drop in gas prices encouraged Americans to spend more at restaurants and bars in April. That trend could continue over the holiday.
Pump prices are down 27 cents since their peak in early April, to $3.67 a gallon, where they're likely to stay this weekend, predicts Tom Kloza, the chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service. That's 12 cents cheaper than last year.
Over the weekend, U.S. drivers will burn about 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline -- and spend $144 million less on gas than last year.
Toledo gas prices have not fallen as far since their early spring peak, but the $3.685-a-gallon local average for regular reported Friday by the Gasbuddy.com Web site was about 15 cents cheaper than a year ago and was down three cents from Thursday.
Prices reported Friday by Gasbuddy spotters ranged from $3.389 a gallon at a Valero station at Monroe Street and Auburn Avenue to $3.799 at numerous stations throughout the metro area.
Restaurants, movie theaters, and retailers across the nation hope to get some of the gasoline savings.
Just last month, AAA and IHS Global Insight, the firm that analyzed the AAA study, were expecting travelers to spend less on entertainment, dining, and shopping on vacation and devote more time to family and friends.
Now travelers might take longer trips or spend more on other things "because there's more money left in their pocket," says John Larson, vice president for IHS.
Still, most people need to restrict their travel budgets. For many, incomes are growing slightly if at all. Household debt remains high.
Although drivers may feel relief at the pump, gasoline still isn't cheap.
Besides last year, the only other time gas was more expensive on Memorial Day was in 2008, when it eventually climbed to a record $4.11 a gallon.
This year, gas shot up by 66 cents from January through early April.
As a result, many people were skittish about planning long road trips.
Half of those surveyed by AAA said they'll travel less than 400 miles. They might be tempted to drive farther -- a fill-up costs $4 to $5 less than in early April, when gas peaked at an average of $3.94.
But they'll burn through that savings after about 30 to 40 miles.
How far people travel might also depend on where they live.
The difference in gas prices around the country is far wider than normal this year, Mr. Kloza said.
In South Carolina, drivers could pay as little as $3.10.
Meanwhile, refinery problems on the West Coast -- where prices usually exceed the national average anyway -- have kept prices especially high there. West Coast drivers could pay as much as $4.50 a gallon this weekend.
Some people who normally would stuff suitcases into overhead bins are packing them into car trunks. They're balking at higher ticket prices, and AAA forecasts a 5.5 percent decline in air travel within the United States this Memorial Day.
U.S. airlines spent 8 percent more on fuel in the first quarter, on top of a 26 percent increase last year, government figures show. They're passing that expense along to passengers. The average airfare for North American flights was $291.04 a round trip, including taxes, according to travel site Kayak.com. That's up 23 percent from last year.
Memorial Day travel is usually a good proxy for the summer.
Alan Pisarski, independent consultant for the tourism industry, said he expects summer travel to be nearly unchanged from last year.