A gorgeous Labor Day weekend beckons. And yet, with the price of a gallon of gas nearly a dollar higher than it was just a few days ago, some people aren't leaving the garage.
Hoteliers in West Virginia, on the Eastern Shore and other points within a day's drive of Washington reported scattered cancellations yesterday because of the record price of fuel. Some worried motorists called ahead to their destinations to make sure they would find gas for the trip home.
Travel experts predict a modest falloff from last year's Labor Day weekend exodus, both from fuel fears and the comparatively early start of school. But they don't expect either factor to stop the masses from fleeing town for one last, long summer weekend.
Justin Dickerson, a senior at Georgetown University, never seriously considered ditching his trip to Virginia Beach to run in the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon. His Volkswagen Jetta, he's proud to say, gets 30 miles to the gallon. He'll just eat less.
"I'm looking to run, get some exercise and get some sunshine, because this may be my last chance before Christmas," he said. "I mean, whatever the cost, you've got to end the summer right."
Two weeks ago, AAA projected 530,000 Washington area residents, roughly one person in 10, would leave town this weekend, with 450,000 traveling by car. But that was based on a survey taken before Hurricane Katrina and before gas at more than $3 a gallon.
The automobile club has been deluged with calls about potential gas shortages across the mid-Atlantic, said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA in the region. There have been spot shortages, especially in North Carolina, but nothing that should deter motorists, he said.
"Will numbers likely be reduced because of Katrina and because of gas? Probably so," Anderson said. "On the other hand, Memorial Day and Labor Day trips are a cherished part of America."
Among the gas-economy casualties is Mike Trail, lead guitarist of the punk band the Revelevens. The band scuttled plans to drive to Little Rock in a Dodge Caravan for a weekend gig.
"We figured it out," said Trail, one of whose band mates works for The Washington Post. "It came out that we'd be spending about $500 to make the trip," which is more than the band would earn from sales of T-shirts and CDs at the performance.
Other travelers downsized long trips into short ones.
In years past, Bobby and Debra Henry have taken Labor Day weekend as another honeymoon, driving to some remote locale in North Carolina or southern Virginia. This year, the Bowie couple opted to celebrate their 20th anniversary on the Eastern Shore, only half a tank of gas away.
"We chose to stay right here in Maryland," said Bobby Henry, a trial lawyer.
"I am not sure that the gas producers and retailers are being totally forthright with the consumers," he added, "because the hurricane hit on Monday, and by Tuesday, gas had spiked by 50 cents."
Based on such fears, many who were planning weekend getaways topped off their tanks earlier in the week.
Lloyd Wolf, a photographer from Arlington, filled his tank two days ago in preparation for a trip this weekend for an artist residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, north of Lynchburg.
"I heard on the radio about possible shortages," Wolf said, "and I was afraid of being stranded in an out-of-the-way place this weekend with little or no gas."
Despite the gas woes, in resorts around the region, most hoteliers predicted a busy weekend. Many said they were booked weeks ago.
The Wintergreen resort, near Charlottesville, reported no cancellations but was offering a special gasoline promotion anyway: $50 to anyone staying at least two nights if they show a receipt for gas purchased in town or on the way.
Tourism officials in Ocean City and Virginia Beach reported some cancellations, but both predicted gas fears would be offset by stunning weather and big-ticket events.
At Virginia's Massanutten Resort, a mountain retreat in the Shenandoah Valley, general manager John Loeblich said there were no cancellations. The story was the same at Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland and at Nags Head, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
"The roads were packed yesterday heading south, and they're packed again today, bumper to bumper," said Joel Patton, with Nags Head Realty. "I don't think the gas prices scared them at all."
Staff writers Steven Ginsburg, Hamil R. Harris and Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.