The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 20, 2012

Travel industry: Gas prices, good weather bode well for Thanksgiving travelers

By Wally Kennedy

— If you’re headed out from Missouri in any direction for the Thanksgiving holiday, it might be a good idea to fill up your tank before you leave the Show-Me State.

That’s because Missouri’s average price for regular gasoline — $3.17 a gallon — is among the lowest in the nation, according to the AAA. The national average Tuesday was about $3.41.

Mike Right, vice president of public affairs for AAA of St. Louis, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that Missouri is usually in the top three when it comes to the lowest average price for regular gasoline nationwide.

“That’s because there’s competitiveness in the market in Missouri,” he said. “We’re close to the supply, and we are well-served by pipelines. Our motor fuels tax is among the lowest in the nation. And, we do not impose a sales tax on gasoline as some states do.”

An uptick in prices of nearly 15 cents a gallon greeted motorists this week in the Joplin market. But regular grade gasoline could still be found Tuesday at a few locations in the Joplin area at not far above $3 per gallon.

That 15-cent increase was linked to the unrest in the Middle East and seasonal factors. Still, the cost of gasoline is down more than 25 cents per gallon since September.

AAA estimates that 43.6 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more for the holiday weekend. It would be the fourth consecutive year of growth since 2008, when Thanksgiving travel dropped by 25 percent.

Right remembers that time well.

“In 2008, we saw travel fall off the cliff,” he said. “We saw the results of the recession that started in 2007. To show how bad it was then, here we are five years after, and we are yet to reach the same level of travel we had five years ago.”

Travel, he said, is a “pretty good barometer” of the economy.

“Looking back on it, we had 9 percent unemployment and the anxiety of whether our jobs would be there,” Right said. “There was a great deal of anxiety about personal financial situations back then.

“It’s less so today because of lower unemployment and improved consumer confidence. Travel for this holiday will be up less than 1 percent, and we have had only a slight increase thus far in 2012 when compared with last year.

“I was really thinking we would see more improvement than what we have seen. But being up less than 1 percent is still positive.”

Tension in the Middle East and the “fiscal cliff” issue at the federal level, he said, could affect that progress before year’s end.

Of the estimated 43.6 million Americans who will travel this Thanksgiving holiday, 90 percent will go by automobile, an increase of 0.6 percent from last year’s figure, according to AAA.

Air travel is expected to decline this year, from 3.2 million travelers in 2011 to 3.14 million, a total of 7.2 percent of trips, AAA estimates.

And though more Americans will travel this holiday, they are planning to spend less. Median spending is expected to drop about 10 percent, to $498 from $554 in 2011.

Kammy Bramlett, director of the Missouri Welcome Center on Interstate 44 southwest of Joplin, said in a telephone interview Tuesday: “We are starting to see traffic pick up for the holidays. They’re already headed to grandma’s house or mom’s house.”

Many of those who are traveling east, she said, have told her they are headed for Silver Dollar City at Branson to see the Christmas lights.

“We’ve got a great weekend ahead for the weather, and that always helps,” Bramlett said. “Gas prices are down, and that’s a big factor. I think it will be a pretty good season for travel.”

Free coffee

MOTORISTS WHO STOP at the Missouri Welcome Center on Interstate 44 southwest of Joplin can take a safety break with free coffee, thanks to an arrangement the center has with a company that operates five hotels in the Branson area, according to Kammy Bramlett, director of the center.