After years of sticking close to home, more Americans are eager to shake off the recession's remnants and have a final summer adventure, according to experts who track travel.
"We've noticed that vacation plans increased quite a bit in August," compared with June, said Chris Christopher, an economist who focuses on consumer markets for IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm.
Christopher said he looked more deeply into data released Tuesday by the Conference Board, a business research group. The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index showed a slight gain overall. But the random sample of consumers reflected a notable uptick in travel plans in recent weeks.
"It's somewhat tied to gas prices," Christopher said. Back in mid-July, gas prices were running around $3.68 a gallon. But this month, they eased down by about a dime a gallon, according to the website Gasbuddy.com.
As gas prices have settled back, consumers have started to feel a bit more comfortable, Christopher said. "And nothing really bad happened in August to get people worried, so consumer confidence is relatively elevated," he said.
That upbeat assessment of travel plans is in line with what AAA Travel sees happening. The auto club estimates 34 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles from home over the long Labor Day holiday weekend — a 4.2 percent jump over last year and the highest number since before the recession began in late 2007.
The boost in trips reflects "the increasingly positive economic outlook and optimism in the housing market," AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet said in a statement. "For many Americans, their home is also their biggest asset. As home prices improve in many parts of the country more families are feeling comfortable about traveling this Labor Day holiday."
About 85 percent of this weekend's trips will be made in a car, AAA Travel says. Those drivers will find average gas prices are 2.7 percent lower than the same time last year, the auto club said.
The number of people traveling by air is expected to rise nearly 3 percent from last year to 2.61 million, AAA projects.
That projection fits with the overall brighter picture for air travel this year. Last week, Airlines for America, the industry trade group, said the major carriers had a collective profit of $1.6 billion in the first half of the year. During the same period last year, they made just $1.2 billion.
In other words, the airlines are having their most profitable year since the terrorist attacks in 2001. Those profits largely reflect the growth in baggage fees over the past five years rather than fare increases.
Travelocity, an online travel services company, says the average cost of a domestic round trip ticket for Labor Day weekend is $335 — just 1 percent more than last year.
Although gasoline and air fares won't cause sticker shock, hotel rates are up significantly, Travelocity says. U.S. hotel rooms are running about 12 percent higher than last year, according to the travel site.