A Last Hooray: Americans Hit the Road for Labor Day

The AAA, the association that keeps track of everything Americans do with their cars, reports that 33 million people will drive or fly over the long Labor Day weekend — August 30 to September 3. That number stands 2.9% over last year, and at the highest level since 2008. The data could be seen as evidence of optimism about the balance of the year because people will travel despite airline ticket prices and gasoline prices that are high. Or Americans may want one last hooray before what they believe will be a harsh economic climate in the final quarter of this year and an even worse 2013.

The information is extraordinary in part because gas prices are so high, which means the investment in travel is more than trivial for many families. Data from the AAA Fuel Gauge puts the average price for a gallon of regular nationwide at $3.717. That is 7% higher than the $3.467 of a month ago.

Airlines have become more adroit at squeezing additional money from passengers, between cutting capacity and raising fees for luggage and food, the average American can hardly afford to drive to the airport, let alone board a plane.

It would be hard to find a single American who does not see news every day about how much his taxes will rise at the end of the year, and how unlikely it is that other Americans who are out of work will find jobs. The economy started to slow in the spring, which means the effects of that slowdown have begun to work their way through the country. Signs of concern show up in government and consumer confidence data.

Many Americans already have decided whether they will spend less for the holidays. The start of that season is only two months away for early shoppers. By November, people will have an extremely good idea what will happen to their aftertax income in 2013, which will shift their last-minute shopping activity one way or another. But it is too early to even guess at that.

The increase in holiday travel this Labor Day weekend might be considered a sign that Americans are optimistic and willing to spend money more freely than earlier this year. Or it may be nice to get away before what is left of the economy disintegrates.

Douglas A. McIntyre