Click here to watch a video of Midlanders' Memorial Day holiday plans.
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Traffic has picked up, the causeway wait is a little longer, and restaurant parking lots are filling at Iowa's tourist mecca, the Okoboji lakes.
Months of warm, mild weather have moved this summer's unofficial start closer to St. Patrick's Day than Memorial Day weekend. And now, with that weekend approaching, a surprising decline in gasoline prices is adding reasons for Midlanders to hit the road.
The holiday weekend should bring high temperatures in the 80s to around 90 degrees with a chance for storms. The nicest day will most likely be Monday, when skies clear and temperatures drop slightly.
“It's been great. ... The phones have been ringing off the hook,” said Stacy Rosemore, tourism director for the Okoboji Tourism Committee in Arnolds Park, Iowa.
Earlier this year, the talk was about gas prices hitting $5 a gallon this summer. But after peaking nationally near $4 a gallon in early April, they've moved in the opposite direction.
“We're seeing a nice downturn in prices, and we're expecting consumers who have been holding back to venture out,” said Rose White, spokeswoman for AAA Nebraska. “Here in the Midwest, we're seeing some of the lowest prices.”
How much have gas prices improved?
» Nationally, regular unleaded gasoline now averages $3.68 per gallon, down 26 cents from an April high of $3.94.
» Nebraska's average price this week was $3.57, down 30 cents from its April high of about $3.87.
» Iowa is seeing prices around $3.48, down 36 cents from an April high of $3.84.
Better deals at the pump could stretch into the summer, but the forecast right now remains hazy.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency's average national price projection of $3.79 per gallon for April through September is skewed by April's higher prices. If this summer's prices follow the path set last year, gas prices will most likely decline in the months ahead, said John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute.
Prices have been dropping since early April, he said, because oil supplies have become more reliable and demand is easing as economic conditions slow in Europe and China.
“Small shifts in demand and supply can cause significant changes” in gas prices, Felmy said.
Because of modestly improving economic conditions in the U.S., more people are expected to travel this year than last, according to an analysis prepared for AAA by IHS Global Insight.
An estimated 34.8 million people are expected to travel, up 1.2 percent over last year.
Families that earn more are expected to account for a larger share of the increase this year. About 36 percent of this year's travelers are expected to have incomes of $100,000 or more, up 6 percentage points from their share last year. About 26 percent of travelers will come from families earning less than $50,000, a 5 percentage point drop.
Higher airfares are expected to push down the average distances traveled to 321 miles, down significantly from last year.
In the region that includes Nebraska and Iowa, air travel is projected to be down 5.9 percent, according to the AAA study.
At Eppley Airfield, it's likely to be flat or drop a percentage point or two, said Steve Coufal, executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority.
More people will be driving, according to the AAA study, and that's good news for places like Okoboji.
“We're looking forward to this summer,” Rosemore said. “With these warmer temperatures and people coming up earlier, we're really positive.”
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