Don't let rising gas prices keep you home

Remember 2008, the Summer of Staycations? With gas prices once again heading above $4 a gallon, it's time to buckle your seat belt, program the GPS, and get ready for the "Summer of Staycations: The Sequel."

The bad news is that the average price of unleaded gas in the Philadelphia area is projected to peak at $4.20 a gallon around Memorial Day, above the $4.12 from three years ago.

But this time around, we're more plugged in, able to grab discounts and deals the second they're posted, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, smartphones and iPads.

"These aren't general promotions like those offered by Expedia," says Anne Banas, the executive editor of SmarterTravel, a website that offers travel news, deals, and advice. "Once they're gone, they're gone. If you can act fast and combine several deals, you can create an itinerary for a fraction of the usual price."

For example, a recent search on Groupon.com for the Boston area turned up a $200 discount for a one-night stay at the Castle Hill Resort & Spa in Cavendish, Vt.; a $15 savings on dinner at Cala's in Manchester-by-the-Sea; and $17 off an all-inclusive bike tour of Boston, tune-up included. Although those deals are no longer available, discounts are added daily.

Banas recommends using Groupon and similar websites, such as Jetsetter.com and LivingSocial.com, to get connected with limited-run discount packages on hotels, restaurants, and other services in major U.S. cities - including Philadelphia.

But first, you have to decide where you want to go and how you want to get there. Rising gas prices are driving up the cost not only of hitting the road, but also of flying and, in some cases, cruising, as well.

Experts say airfares are likely to increase with rising fuel costs. While this increase is usually built into domestic ticket prices, international flights have started to add fuel surcharges.

This doesn't mean that airlines will be getting rid of their summer sales. You're just going to have to look harder to find them.

Airlines have started using flash sales - offering discounted fares for only a few hours, usually without much notice. Staying connected is the key to snagging such deals, says George Hobica, the president of AirfareWatchdog.com.

"These sales are almost always promoted through social media," he says. "Following the airlines on Twitter or signing up for Web alerts is the best way to get the jump on other travelers."

As for cruises, European lines such as P&O Cruises, Cunard, and Fred.Olsen are adding fuel surcharges to their ticket prices. American lines such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian have yet to raise their rates, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com.

"Nothing's definite yet, but if fuel prices remain this high, there's a fair chance that they'll affect the itineraries of most cruises," she says.

That means shorter routes and the elimination of some distant ports, such as Aruba on a southern Caribbean cruise.

You can save money, Spencer Brown says, by taking "drive-to cruises" from nearby ports such as Cape Liberty Cruise Port in Bayonne, N.J. (Royal Caribbean and Celebrity); New York City (Carnival, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian, and Princess); and Baltimore (Carnival, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean).

If you rule out flying and cruising, that leaves driving to your vacation spot. So, what kind of vacation can you afford when it costs $50, $60, maybe $70 each time you fill the tank?

Travelers are starting to "trade down" when picking a destination, says Lara Mandala, managing director of Mandala Research.

"People are adapting to the new reality and are looking for ways to save money wherever they can," Mandala says. "The biggest change I've seen is the location of vacations - people are looking to vacation in their own backyards.

"A lot of the destinations I've dealt with are changing their marketing strategies," she says. "Instead of a Virginia resort saying, 'Let's get people from New York,' it's saying, 'Let's get people from Richmond.' "

Still, if you go farther than the Jersey Shore or the southern Poconos, you'll need to refill the gas tank at least a few times for the round trip.

That's why mapping your route and finding the cheapest gas along the way is important - to a point.

"You've got to be smart," says Patrick DeHann, a senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy. "Driving clear across town to save 5 cents isn't worth it, no matter how expensive a gallon of gas is."

DeHann projects the average price for unleaded gas across the country will range from $3.65 to $4.15, leveling off after Memorial Day.

Websites such as MapQuest, AAA, and GasBuddy offer ways to help you save time and money on the road.

MapQuest recently launched an updated version of its Gas Prices tool, which finds the cheapest gas along your route. It also lists stations offering alternative fuels, such as biodiesel, and includes a gas calculator that computes the total cost of any road trip.

AAA offers a similar service, called Fuel Price Finder, that lists all of the gas stations within a specific zip code.

GasBuddy shows gas prices state by state and county by county, plus in Canada.

After you save at the pump, you can save more money, experts say, by how and what you drive.

"The biggest problem right now with gas usage is people's driving habits," says John Ryder, an auto-repair territory manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "I'm on the road pretty often, and there are times when I'm going 65 on the highway, and people pass me like I'm parked on the side of the road."

Speeding can drastically decrease the gas mileage of any vehicle. Cars that average 15 miles per gallon won't get close to 13 when they're consistently driven over the speed limit, Ryder says.

"Blowing past someone to save an additional 10 seconds of travel time," he says, "isn't worth the gas you lose doing so."

Driving a poorly maintained car also will waste gas. The biggest culprit, Ryder says, are the tires. Driving on an underinflated tire cuts into the car's gas mileage and can ruin the tire.

"People tend to ignore the little things on their automobiles," Ryder says. "In the long run, they can wind up costing you more money than any major part on your vehicle."

There are other savings to offset your gas costs, such as staying in a house or condo with a kitchen to cut down on restaurant tabs, and visiting free or inexpensive state and national parks. Combine the two by going camping.

Just remember: Whether you spend your summer vacation at the Jersey Shore or the Poconos, or break it into day trips or long weekends, there's no need to let gas prices get in the way. With some planning and Internet surfing, you can make this "Summer of Staycations: The Sequel" a big hit.


AAA Tips for Road Trips

About 90 percent of Americans vacation by personal vehicle. These tips will help you save fuel and reduce hassles:

If you have a choice of vehicles, take the one that gets the best gas mileage.

Renting a fuel-efficient model can save you money at the pump and by reducing wear and tear on your personal vehicle.

Choose a route that enables you to travel at constant speeds and bypass congested areas as much as possible. Unless you're taking a scenic drive, avoid two-lane roads with lots

of stop signs and traffic signals. Plan the best route by going to aaa.com.

Start trips early in the day while traffic is light. Plan meal stops to coincide with likely periods of traffic congestion.

Take only what you need, to keep the load lighter. Keep luggage inside the vehicle, rather than strapped on the roof, where it will create wind resistance.

Choose a vacation spot where only minimal driving will be needed after you arrive.

If your trip seems too far to drive the whole way, consider driving part way and using public transportation or air travel for the remaining distance.

SOURCE: AAA's Gas Watcher's Guide