Americans are putting the brakes on Labor Day weekend travel plans this year, as economic strains combine with a quirk of the calendar.
Capping a rough staycation summer for the tourism business, the American Automobile Assn. estimated that 39.1 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home between the Thursday and Monday of Labor Day weekend -- down 6 million, or 13.3%, from last year's holiday traveler tally. It's also the first decline since 2006.
About 4.7 million Californians will travel over the weekend, off 13% from 5.4 million last year, AAA said.
A big factor in the decreased travel estimate this year: Labor Day falls almost a full week later in 2009 than in 2008. The holiday is so late that many children will have started school, making travel tougher for many families, the auto club said Wednesday in a report, based in part on a survey of 1,350 U.S. households.
Vacationing more cheaply and closer to home has been popular in Southern California, said Carol Martinez, a spokeswoman for LA Inc., the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. Throughout the recession, the bureau has seen a surge in calls for discount coupons and bargains at hotels, resorts and attractions from people living within the state, she said.
"People are looking at shorter-distance trips more nowadays because it's usually not as expensive," Martinez said.
"One of our leading visitor markets right now is San Francisco, and we've begun to market more within the region and the state because of that."
At Disneyland, one of California's most popular tourist destinations, Labor Day hasn't been left to the strains of recession and school.
For the fourth year in a row, Disneyland's Half Marathon Weekend will coincide with Labor Day weekend. The resort is expecting more than 18,000 participants running through the theme park and around Angel Stadium and other parts of Anaheim, said Suzi Brown, a spokeswoman for Disneyland Resort.
"Typically Labor Day weekend, by then, travel for families from different parts of the country slows down a bit because most families are back in school," Brown said. "So for us, it's a great opportunity to bring other guests to the resort."
The run has been sold out for months, Brown said, and the resort's three hotels are sold out for Saturday, Sept. 5, and nearly full for the Friday and Sunday before.
Although fewer people are expected to travel this coming holiday weekend, 2009 should still produce the third-busiest Labor Day weekend this decade, trailing only 2008 and 2003, AAA said.
Hotel consultant David Brudney sees pent-up demand for pleasure travel and thinks AAA's estimates may be conservative.
"There's no question about it," said Brudney, an independent hotel consultant based in Carlsbad, Calif. "I think we're going to have a better demand for Labor Day rooms than is expected right now, across the board, all segments of hotels."
The reason? People feel entitled to a vacation, he said.
"I still believe vacations, if they're mini or full blown, are something people stick to," Brudney said. "They feel like they deserve it. They might think, 'We didn't do it in July, we didn't do it in August, so let's do it now.' "
The luxury hotel segment has been the hardest hit because the stigma of excessive corporate spending has been attached to many higher-end resorts, he said.
"Hotels are trying to be creative, to add value," Brudney said.
"Even if a resort isn't dropping the price on a room, they might do something like throw in a round of golf," he said. "They're trying to win back customers and for them, right now, it's all about those two things -- price and value."
The allure of the last long summer weekend should temporarily dispel travelers' worries about joblessness and school-overlap concerns, the AAA said. Consumer confidence has been rising despite the recession, which could result in more people feeling free to travel, the report said.
A sign of a growing belief that the country's economy is beginning to rebound can be seen in how much travelers are willing to spend; AAA's report said 80% of the surveyed travelers said they're planning to spend more this year on their Labor Day trip than last year.
Travelers also should be motivated by gasoline prices, which are down compared with this time last year. The U.S. average price of a gallon of regular gasoline was $2.633 on Wednesday, $1.05 less than a year ago, according to the AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Report.
"Our forecast shows Labor Day travel will be up over this summer's Fourth of July holiday, and that's a positive sign," AAA Chief Executive Robert L. Darbelnet said.
Only 4% of travelers are expected to fly to their destination, while an estimated 84% will drive, the auto club said.
The survey for AAA's 2009 Labor Day Travel Forecast was conducted by IHS Global Insight, based in Boston.