Gas Prices Aside, Americans Have Been Hitting the Road Again

driving family vacationThe United States of America has about 4 million miles of roads, and we're a nation that loves to drive -- almost three-quarters of us do our summer vacation traveling by car. Our drive to drive, though, has been challenged in recent years by the soaring price of gas as well as by a stuttering economy that has left many people out of work or stretching budgets to make ends meet. Thus, it may be a bit of a surprise to learn that, according to the Chase Freedom Lifestyle Index, our spending on road trips seems to be rising.

The index, based on aggregated spending data from Chase Freedom credit cards, reveals that overall travel spending has remained relatively flat between 2011 and 2012, but road-trip spending has gone up. In the second quarter of 2012, the average road trip's cost (including gas, fast food, hotel stays, car rental, and tolls) totaled $367, up 3% over year-ago levels. The increase was even higher -- 8% -- over the previous quarter, but that makes sense as the second quarter features warmer weather and the beginning of summer.

Here are a few more noteworthy details from the study:
  • Men spend more. The average man's road trip costs almost 45% more than that of the average woman ($438 vs. $303).
  • 35-to-44-year-olds spent the most (averaging $449), while those 65 and older spent the least ($269).
  • The highest-cost road trips were in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Indiana, while the states seeing the biggest increases in road-trip spending were Arizona, Florida, and Illinois.
  • On a year-over-year basis, spending was essentially flat on gas and car rentals, and up just 4% for hotels. But fast-food spending surged 17%, and tolls 29%.

Mysteries Solved

Some of the above can be easily explained. Younger people spending more than older people makes sense, as people ages 35 to 44 are generally in the prime of their working lives, while many of those 65 or older are retired and living on lower incomes.

The big jump in toll spending isn't surprising, either, as many states and other regions, strapped for cash in this tough economy, have been raising toll rates or proposing to do so. Last year, the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission hiked tolls by 33% for cars, while the Pennsylvania Turnpike upped cash tolls for cars by 10% (leaving E-ZPass rates unchanged). The Maine Turnpike is proposing upping its rates by an average of 25%. Some tolls in the Northeast have jumped so much that the federal Government Accountability Office is investigating them.

The increase in fast-food spending might be explained by consumers embracing new menu items, such as Burger King's (BKW) new chicken strips and caramel coffee frappes, which compete with similar fare at McDonald's (MCD). A different, and perhaps more likely explanation, though, is that since so many are still struggling in our sputtering economy, more folks are choosing to dine at lower-cost fast-food venues instead of more upscale eateries.

It's also worth remembering that this data reflects the habits of credit card users, not all Americans. However, that still reflects a wide cross-section of America, as recent data shows that last year, only 27% of all point-of-sale purchases were made with cash, and the cash-usage rate is dropping. (Paper checks are disappearing even faster, with only about 7% of purchases last year made by check.)

Promising News

Increased spending on road trips bodes well for the American economy, as hotels, restaurants, and gift shops will likely see their coffers swell. Chase's data is supported by other studies, too, such as one by TripAdvisor (TRIP) that found fully 86% of Americans were planning a trip this summer, up from 81% a year ago. Also, 21% would be willing to drive 10 hours or more if they'd save on airfare that way.

Overall, our great American travel picture makes sense: We want to travel, we're eager to travel by car, and we'll find ways to save money where we can, whether it's driving instead of flying or eating at less expensive establishments.

Longtime Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns shares of McDonald's, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of TripAdvisor and McDonald's. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of McDonald's and TripAdvisor.

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Nobama loves green energy like Solyndra! $500,000,000.00, lost! Remember In November that he said, under his plan, energy rates would NECESSARILLY skyrocket and he would bankrupt the coal industry!
So, anyone who thinks Obama is not responsible, ignores facts! And, before the kooks start the Bush thing, when gas reached $4, he opened every option to drill, and gas drops to $1.50 within a month! Gas was $1.83 when Obama took office so I hope you like your change! I mean the change you have left after putting $90 in your gas tank!!!

September 05 2012 at 1:14 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Hey Barry, you can blame Bush all you want, but at least gas was under two bucks a gallon when he left office. What the hell are you and your energy team doing to stabilize the high gas prices. Wake the hell up Barack ! You have been in control for almost 4 years with no accomplishments. Please saddle up your camel and go back to Chicago. Some hope and change you gave us all.

September 04 2012 at 11:12 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Hey, after all Obama did say he was for higher gas prices. I guess he thought it would make for better Volt sales. I wonder what Rick Wagoner is thinking right now ?

September 04 2012 at 11:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Obama and the democratic destroyers love high gas prices, it will help continue the high cost of living while forcing more Americans on food stamps. The highest ever in American history 49 million people and growing each day. Now there's Hope you can count on. Change is what you all have left after 4 years of Barack's poor leadership.

September 04 2012 at 10:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I love dummys like teapartyiscrazy because they drink the kool aid while ignoring facts!

September 04 2012 at 10:40 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Gas WAS $1.83 when Obama took office! He said during his campain that under his plan, energy rates would necessarilly skyrocket and he would bankrupt the coal industry! Since he ONLY likes green energy, HE IS RESPONSIBLE for the misery we are all experiencing! Before you kooks bring up Bush, when gas reached $4, Bush openend every option to drill and gas fell to $1.50 within a month! So, how do you like your change now? I mean the change you have left after putting $90 in the gas tank!!!! This guy has failed us all and needs to go!!!!!

September 04 2012 at 8:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

When are gas prices coming down??????

September 04 2012 at 6:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to FRANK's comment

When Obama goes!

September 04 2012 at 8:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

WELL AT LEAST 4 AMERICANS ANYWAY............................................. what a crock !

September 04 2012 at 3:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply