Millions plan holiday road trip

Planning a road trip this long Labor Day weekend as a last hurrah before summer becomes a distant memory? Then don't dwell on the fact that Tri-City gas prices are 70 cents higher a gallon compared with last year.

But the high cost of gas isn't deterring 27.3 million people nationwide, or 0.5 percent more compared with last year, from taking to the roads this holiday weekend, according to AAA.

A gallon of gas cost about $3.82 per gallon in the Tri-Cities on Thursday, about 2 cents higher than last month and 70 cents higher than last year, according to AAA's daily fuel gauge report.

The state average is $3.77 per gallon, 4 cents less than a month ago and 67 cents higher than last year.

It appears the three-day weekend road trip may be the preferred alternative to buying a plane ticket for a getaway. The country's overall travel forecast shows about 2.4 percent fewer Americans traveling this weekend, according to AAA.

AAA said the decrease of travelers to about 31.5 million Americans for the holiday weekend is the first decline in travel expected for a holiday weekend this year.

That dip can be attributed to consumer uncertainty with the economy and increasing airfare costs, according to AAA.

About 2.5 million Americans are expected to fly this holiday weekend, which is 1.9 percent fewer than last year. But plane ticket prices this year are about 13 percent higher than last Labor Day weekend, AAA reported.

Ron Foraker, director of Tri-Cities Airport, said he's not sure yet how air travel in the Tri-Cities will shape up for the long weekend. But in the first seven months of the year, the Pasco airport saw 8 percent more people boarding planes than the same time last year.

Fewer travelers isn't something Julie Harrington, chief operating officer of Travel Leaders, a travel agency with offices in the Mid-Columbia, has noticed for Labor Day weekend travel.

Popular destinations for the weekend include Disney World and Las Vegas, she said. And more families this year seem to be taking advantage of the lower costs for a cruise to Alaska as that season ends.

Airfare costs are slightly up but steady, but there aren't any real "happening hot deals," Harrington said.

But there are good rates to Mexico, where resort towns are trying to attract tourism. Some Mid-Columbia families have taken advantage of deals offered by the all-inclusive resorts, she said.

Airfare to Hawaii is on sale this month along with various special offers, making it a good time to book a Hawaii trip for later in the year, Harrington said.

While some locals jet off to Mexico or cruise to Alaska this weekend, the Tri-Cities will be a destination for other travelers as they try to enjoy their last real family weekend before the school year begins in earnest.

A state championship softball tournament held by the Clean and Sober Softball Association should bring about 500 people to the area, said Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.

That's a sports event that Chris Garratt, area director of sales and marketing for the Tri-Cities Red Lion hotels, said is contributing to the Richland Red Lion being completely booked for the weekend.

Garratt said he expects a good weekend for the hotels. The wine package Red Lion offers, which includes a bottle of wine and a map of local wineries, has been popular, and the growing prestige of Red Mountain wineries has been drawing more leisure travelers to the area.

While there aren't multiple city-wide events during the holiday weekend, there are a lot of events planned that help draw visitors, from farmers markets and jet boat tours to vineyard hikes at Terra Blanca Winery in Benton City, Watkins said.

Three Rivers Folklife Society and the city of Richland are holding the Tumbleweed Music Festival in Howard Amon Park, and area wineries and restaurants have live music events.

"There is basically something for everyone taking place," Watkins said.

Labor Day tends to be the year's busiest travel weekend on Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Work on most construction projects on state highways will pause during the holiday weekend, but the state advises drivers to watch for shifted lanes, detours and reduced-speed zones.

The state encourage travelers to plan ahead, and has information online to help people avoid peak travel times on popular routes on Labor Day weekend, which include Interstate 90 between Ellensburg and Seattle, Highway 2 between Leavenworth and Everett and Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Olympia and Bellingham and the Canadian border.

For the full details, visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/congestion/laborday/2011.