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Memorial Day driving to drop slightly - AAA

Motorist group sees first decrease in holiday travel since 2002, with Americans at a 'travel tipping point.'

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By David Goldman, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- For the first time since just after the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans plan to drive less on Memorial Day weekend than they did the year before, with high gasoline prices in a weak economy a prime reason, according to a AAA study released Thursday.

The number of Americans traveling 50 or more miles from home this holiday weekend will decrease by 0.9% to 37.87 million, the motorist group said in a statement. That will mark the first decrease in Memorial Day driving since 2002, when the nation was recovering from the shock of the attacks on New York and Washington.

More than 12% of the U.S. population will be celebrating the Memorial Day weekend away from home, AAA said. Of those traveling, AAA said 31.7 million people, or 83%, are expected to drive. That's 1% fewer than the 32 million Memorial Day drivers a year ago. And airline travel is expected to decrease 0.5%.

"With Americans working paycheck to paycheck, high energy costs are having an effect," said AAA vice president Mark Brown in a press conference. "Americans are finding themselves at a travel tipping point."

The national average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline rose to a record $3.78, according to a survey of gas stations conducted by AAA. That's up 39 cents from a month ago and about 68 cents - 18% - higher than this time last year.

Cost of travel rising

As a result, AAA said it will be costlier to travel this holiday season than last.

For the 11% of travelers who plan on flying, the price of a ticket will be 8% higher than it was last year, the group said. Most U.S. air carriers have announced a fuel surcharge that will be added to ticket prices this spring.

Rising fuel costs have hammered the airline industry this year, forcing several specialty charter carriers to shut down.

Though AAA expected "three diamond" hotel rates to decrease 7% at an average of $162 per night, it forecast a price increase of 9% to an average of $112 per night for "two diamond" hotels. AAA rates hotels on comfort, cleanliness and safety among other factors, and it assigns a "diamond" rating from one to five, with five being the highest.

And not only will rising gas prices send driving costs higher, rental car rates will increase too. AAA says it will cost $45 on average this year to rent a car, compared to $31 a year ago.

"Many Americans are feeling a financial pinch this holiday weekend from record high gasoline prices and other factors," said AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet in a statement. "This spring, high gasoline prices appear to be dampening our society's intent to travel."

Darbelnet said fewer Americans traveling could eventually harm travel-dependent companies, and local economies of travel destinations around the country. To top of page

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