July 3, 2009 -- Hot dogs, fireworks and, unfortunately, traffic.
There's no denying it, but all three are rites of passage each summer for the July 4th weekend. But there is some good news for travelers this year: while gas prices are up, they are nowhere near last year's all-time record high. And expect to see fewer cars on this road this year as American families choose shorter vacations.
"Gas prices are significantly cheaper than they were last year at this time," said Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for AAA in New York.
Last summer, gas hit an all-time high of $4.05 a gallon. The average price of a gallon of regular gas now stands at $2.64, according to the Energy Information Administration. While that might be good for summer drivers, remember that at the end of December gas was just $1.61 a gallon. In five months, the average price of gas has shot up more than a dollar a gallon.
"It's that precipitous rise that people are paying attention to," Sinclair said.
This weekend, AAA expects 32.6 million people to take road trips, down 2.6 percent from last year. In fact, all travel this weekend is expected to be down except for air travel which spiked 4.9 percent after airlines cut ticket prices to fill seats left vacant by the recession.
Sinclair said that he expects driving trips to be shorter this weekend too. In the New York area last year, AAA received 16,000 requests for maps. This year, it fell to 14,000. Also, the tour guides being requested this summer are for areas a lot closer to home than in past years.
"People are still traveling, but staying closer to home," Sinclair said.
When driving this weekend, be extra careful. Friday the most dangerous day of the year to drive and July 4 is the second-most dangerous day, Sinclair said.
"They're drinking, they're not wearing seatbelts. Overall, for every year that we monitor these things, we've seen that 65 percent of the people who are killed in car crashes weren't wearing their seat belt. It is very very obvious and clear that seat belts that make such a tremendous difference. About 16,000 people a year are killed because of drunk driving," he said. "If you could make people put their seat belts on and not drink and drive we could cut the number those killed every year by more than half. It's still a time to keep safety first."
Gas Money Saving Tips
So what can you do to save at the pump? Here are tips to help you squeeze a little bit more out of your gas budget as you head out on this holiday weekend.
Choose the right octane. For most cars, the recommended gas is regular octane. Using a higher octane gas than the manufacturer recommends offers no benefit, and it costs you at the pump. Unless your engine is knocking, buying higher octane gas is a waste of money.
Stay away from gas-savings gadgets. Be skeptical about any gadget promising to improve your mileage. The Environmental Protection Agency has tested more than 100 such devices -- including "mixture enhancers" and fuel line magnets -- and has found that very few provided any benefits. Those that worked provided only a slight improvement. Some can even damage your engine.
Stay within the speed limit. Gas mileage decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph.
Avoid unnecessary idling. It wastes fuel, costs you money and pollutes the air. Turn off the engine if you anticipate a wait.
Stop and start gently. You can improve in-town gas mileage by up to 5 percent by driving gently.
Use overdrive and cruise control. They improve fuel economy when you're driving on the highway.
Check your tires. Keeping your tires properly inflated and aligned can increase gas mileage up to 3 percent.
Keep your engine tuned. Tuning your engine can increase gas mileage by an average of 4 percent.
Change your oil. Clean oil reduces wear caused by friction between moving parts and removes harmful substances from the engine. Motor oil that says "energy conserving" on the performance symbol of the American Petroleum Institute contains friction-reducing additives that can improve fuel economy.
Replace air filters regularly. Replacing clogged filters can increase gas mileage up to 10 percent.
Lose the junk in your trunk. An extra 100 pounds in the trunk can reduce fuel economy by up to 2 percent. Removing nonessential stuff can save you at the pump.
Combine errands. Several short trips taken from a cold start can use twice as much fuel as one trip covering the same distance when the engine is warm.
Consider carpooling. Many cities make it even easier by matching up commuters.
Bus it, bike it or hoof it. Why not leave your car at home and consider public transportation, a bike ride or a stroll across town?