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July 4 travel at five-year high, though vacation spending projected to be down

This Fourth of July holiday week will see more travelers than any other in the past five years, experts say.

More than 42 million Americans are expected to travel 50 or more miles from home during the holiday week — a significant increase over the 40 million who took such trips last year. Most will drive, but travel projections for planes, buses, trains and cruise ships also are up.

According to AAA, the country has not seen so much travel since 2007, when the same number of people hit the road. Experts say a slowly improving economy and declining gas prices have largely driven the rise in travel.

But traffic patterns will be a little different this year.

With Independence Day falling smack in the middle of the week, traffic experts project most people will be traveling before or after the Fourth, because they will have more flexibility in crafting vacation plans.

"Being in the middle of the week this year, it's totally different," said Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Marian Scorza.

When asked what day they would depart on their vacation, 54 percent of Americans told AAA they intended to begin traveling the weekend before July 4. Most planned to leave Friday, June 29.

That means roads and airports should be relatively clear today, and the congestion typically associated with holiday weekends will be spread over several days.

"On normal three-day weekend holidays, you get out there Friday afternoon, it's a free-for-all; everyone's trucking somewhere," said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins. "And Monday, everybody's coming back."

The wider spread of days has seemed to decrease road congestion, Gaskins said, making troopers' jobs a little easier.

Extra patrols have been called in, as they typically are around holidays, to watch for speeding, aggressive driving, and motorists under the influence of alcohol. Patrol planes will monitor Interstate 75 from the air.

This is because, as usual, the vast majority of people will choose to travel by car.

More than 35.5 million people are expected to take to the roads — setting an all-time high for the year and clocking in at a 4 percent increase over the number of people who drove last year, according to AAA.

Sliding gas prices and relatively low car rental rates helped contribute to this trend, experts said. Florida's gas prices remain among the lowest in the country.

The average price of gas in the Tampa Bay area Tuesday hovered around $3.10 — almost a dime less than the state's average and more than 20 cents cheaper than the national average of $3.33, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

Some local gas stations flaunted prices even lower, according to news reports, including one St. Petersburg station charging $2.99 per gallon for regular fuel.

Last year, gas prices across the country were above $3.50.

But not everyone will be driving. More than 3.2 million people are expected to board a plane during the holiday week, a 9 percent increase over last year.

This year marks the third consecutive year air travel has gone up, following a decade low of 1.4 million air travelers in 2009, according to AAA.

The remaining 3.6 percent of Independence Day travelers are expected to use other means of transportation, including trains, buses and ships — a 10 percent increase over last year.

But more travel doesn't necessarily mean Americans will be spending more money.

According to AAA, the average American traveler is expected to spend about $750 this week, a 7 percent decline from last year, when most American travelers spent a little more than $800.

This means lower-cost activities such as visiting friends and family or sightseeing are expected to increase by 4 percent this year, while shopping and paying for entertainment could fall by as much as 9 percent, experts said.

Times staff writer Michael Finch contributed to this report. Marissa Lang can be reached at or (727) 893-8804.

July 4 travel at five-year high, though vacation spending projected to be down 07/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 10:24pm]
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