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Midweek Fourth of July causes muddle for travelers
NEW YORK -- Who knew the calendar could cause so much vacation heartburn?
For the first time in five years Independence Day falls on a Wednesday, leaving travelers unsure when to celebrate and worrying those who make a living off tourists.
"The midweek holiday seems to have travelers confused," said Anthony Del Gaudio, vice president of hotel sales for Loews Hotels, which isn't seeing the normal July Fourth spike in bookings.
Those who sell vacations say this year's calendar gives Americans more options: Tack on Saturday through Tuesday or Thursday through Sunday to the holiday, or just take the entire week off.
But consumers' confidence has been waning. Now, some aren't happy about having to burn an extra vacation day or two to get that long weekend. From 2008 through 2011, the work holiday fell on either Friday or Monday, so employees and their families got an automatic three-day weekend, similar to Memorial Day and Labor Day.
"It's irritating because everybody wants those three, four-day holiday weekends," said Tom Donohue, who runs an HIV awareness program based in Charlottesville, Va.
In recent years, he's traveled to see family in Pennsylvania, including his father whose birthday is on July 2. There's swimming and boating on the Susquehanna River and -- of course -- fireworks.
Not this year. Donohue plans to stay local, savings those days off "for an actual vacation," a Caribbean cruise in October.
Others are determined to have their summer holiday no matter what.
Alicia Hutton, her husband and their two daughters are flying from Boston to Baltimore to see family. The parents had to take two extra days off from their jobs to make the Wednesday to Saturday trip work.
"It's not ideal because normally we would tack on one day to a long weekend," Hutton said.
AAA, one of the nation's largest travel agencies, projects 42.3 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home between July 3 and July 8. That's roughly the same amount that traveled in 2007, the last time July Fourth fell on a Wednesday. Last year, when the holiday fell on a Monday, 40.3 million people traveled. But before you think it's a big increase, note that AAA's economists changed how they estimated the number of travelers: They used a six-day period this year compared to five last year.
"In general, we think that travel from last year is pretty flat," said Shane Norton, a director at IHS Global Insight, which provides economic forecasting and research for AAA.
The economy weighs heavily on families' travel plans. Consumer confidence has fallen for four straight months as Americans continue to worry about their jobs and retirement funds. The June reader of a widely followed confidence index was 62. A reading of 90 indicates a healthy economy.
That helps explain why families don't seem prepared yet to splurge on vacation. Many want to get away but are opting for lower-priced hotels and are looking specifically for properties with free breakfast and Internet. Or they're choosing instead to stay with friends or relatives.
The typical traveler will spend $749 over six days, down from $807 over five days last year, according to an online survey of 344 people conducted for AAA. Another look at the holiday, by Visa Inc., shows that all Americans -- whether traveling or not -- will spend an average of $191 on July 4th activities, down from $216 last year. Visa surveyed 1,012 people by telephone.
"With most Americans continuing to watch every dollar closely, many have realized that sparklers and flag emblazoned t-shirts are not essential items" Jason Alderman, Visa's senior director of global financial education said in a statement.
Some don't plan to celebrate at all. There will be no trips to the beach, no fireworks and no barbeques for 1 in 5 Americans, according to Visa.
The overwhelming majority of Independence Day travelers plan to drive: 35.5 million people or 84 percent of travelers according to AAA. As they do, they'll get a break at the pump.
The price of gasoline, always on travelers' minds before a summer road trip, is now an average $3.33 per gallon -- down from almost $4 in early April, when there was talk of $5 gas by summer. Whether that will translate into spending more at their destination remains unclear.
"Theoretically, it should boost consumer spending, but so far there's no evidence of that," said energy consultant Jim Ritterbusch. "The housing industry is still depressed and that's keeping people from being confident. They're going to remain thrifty."
Another 3.2 million travelers, or 8 percent of holiday vacationers, plan to fly. That will boost their credit card bills: the average domestic roundtrip ticket is $391, up 6 percent from last year, according to Travelocity.
Hotel rooms will also cost more. The average price for a room in the top 25 cities will be $140, up 16 percent from last year, according to Orbitz.
Some families haven't been able to travel for three or four years. There are signs they might finally be ready for a summer trip, whether it's this week or not.
Adam Weissenberg, who heads the travel and hospitality consulting group at Deloitte, said many families canceled or delayed vacations during the recession.
"People are starting to say: gee, I need to take a vacation," Weissenberg said.
Brandy Moore, owner and captain of Biloxi Shrimping Trips in Mississippi, was worried about the mid-week holiday but has ended up selling out her 20-person, 6 a.m. fishing tour for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. But she attributes it to a better overall summer season; not a particularly strong Independence Day.
"We are just are having a really busy summer all around," Moore said.
At Kampgrounds of America Inc., which operates 450 campgrounds in the United States under the KOA name, summer bookings are up 5 percent from last year.
But KOA is still feeling the effect of the calendar quick. Reservations for the July Fourth holiday are down 4 percent.
"It's the weakest situation we could ask for," said Mike Gast, the company's vice president of communications. "We obviously like it to be a Friday or Monday."
Reporters Chris Kahn and Samantha Bomkamp contributed to this report.
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.