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Money-saving Memorial Day weekend travel options

With gas prices already at an all-time high and Memorial Day just around the corner, many Americans are wondering how to travel without breaking the bank. Travelzoo's senior editor, Gabe Saglie offers some money-saving Memorial Day travel options.

A lot of what should dissuade the American traveler from hitting the road this Memorial Day has become reality. In shaky economic times when mortgage payments and groceries are on an even playing field when it comes to competing for our wallets, common sense might dictate travel would be way down. Consider that according to AAA, gas prices are already up 22% over last year and airline prices up 8% over last year.

But Americans seem to be steadfast about their right to time off. With tougher work demands and limited vacation days, skipping out on Memorial Day travel, even in the face of higher gas costs, is not an option. In fact, AAA also found that less than 1 percent of last year’s Memorial Day vacationers are staying home this year; the only other time this holiday saw a dip in travel was the first Memorial Day weekend that followed 9/11.

That’s not to say we’re not being forced to think outside the box. After all, an AOL Travel poll found that more than half of Americans (57 percent) are planning on cutting travel costs this summer. That might mean shortening the length of your getaway or picking a destination that’s closer to home. We may be staying with family rather than booking a hotel, or perhaps swapping homes, renting a private home, giving us access to kitchens that, subsequently, help curtail food costs.

Some good news, though: there’s no denying the availability of money-saving options on the landscape of Memorial Day travel. Hotels are offering major incentives, like the increasingly popular gas card offer, and price breaks. Immune to gas price fluctuations, this is an industry that can control its costs to lure travelers. Some of the best incentives exist in popular American cities like Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Scottsdale, and even the hip Southern California hot spots of Orange County and San Diego. South American and Latin American vacation packages are offering some amazing bargains, especially to Mexico. Tropical hot spots like the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are especially affordable this year. European cruising is the focus of some impressive offers too. The American traveler pays for these in U.S. dollars and gets access to transportation and food while remaining immune to the stronger European currencies.

But most of us will travel domestically, and most of us will be faced with the decision of how to get to where we’re going. Expecting eye-popping airfare sales may be far-fetched; rising costs for airlines aside, consider that Memorial Day vacationing doesn’t give most of us the flexibility of travel dates that usually produces the best fares. Most of us are heading out Friday, or perhaps early Saturday morning, and returning Monday. In fact, according to AAA, only 11 percent of Americans are planning on travelling by plane, and even less by train. The vast majority of (83 percent) will pack the car and hit the road, even with the average per-gallon price of gas (at the time this piece went to press) at a whopping $3.78 (and that would be a bargain where this writer lives in Southern California). The question is: will traveling by car this Memorial Day weekend save me the most money?  Here’s a comparison of costs and, importantly, travel time to some of the hot domestic destinations this holiday weekend. We priced all travel for a family of four, and, for our gas costs, used AAA’s online “Fuel Cost Calculator.” Picking the perfect mode of transport may come down to value and your personal take on convenience.

Orlando
What many call America’s playground is a theme park mecca, catering to a variety of likes and offering plenty of activities for the whole family. Hotel, food and transportation can be found with relative ease and often at big discounts. We picked New York City as our hub of origin.

  • Plane: $1592 plus tax for 6 hours of roundtrip travel
  • Train: $1332 for 42 hours of roundtrip travel
  • Automobile: $334 plus tolls for 34 hours of roundtrip travel

The verdict: Clearly, travel by car is the most cost effective way to go. But 34 hours is one lengthy trip, and that’s not counting the hidden costs of long journeys by car, from lodging to food. Add those dependable potty breaks, and paying close to four times more to travel by air (3 hours each way) suddenly starts to look like a very good option. The New York to Orlando air route is popular enough that plenty of travel options (from carriers to times) are available. Train travel in this particular case is not only costly but perhaps, illogically long.

Chicago
Chicago, one of America’s great cities, is a walking town. You don’t need a car to cruise the Magnificent Mile, and the city’s public transportation system is a well-oiled machine. This is where great dining, shopping and entertainment come together in a breathtaking big-city setting.  We picked Indianapolis as our point of origin.

  • Plane: $696 plus tax for 2 hours of roundtrip travel
  • Train: $174 for 10 hours of roundtrip travel
  • Automobile: $56 plus tolls for 6 hours of roundtrip travel

The verdict: The hour flight each way doesn’t count the extra time it takes to get to the airport, wait for your plane to take off and get yourself from O’Hare to your hotel. By car, you’ll have to shell out an extra $25 to $35 a night to park at your hotel.  But train travel is affordable; a 5-hour train ride each way also serves to keep the kids fascinated during the commute. And since you’ll end up in a city where you can walk everywhere and spend cash on cab rides rather than parking tickets, rail may be the way to go here.

San Diego
For Memorial Day travel, there’s a clear and present military reality to San Diego; the city’s beautiful Harbor is a U.S. navy base and troops train at Camp Pendleton. But don’t forget the sunshine, beaches and all that amusement, from SeaWorld to Legoland and the famed San Diego Zoo. We elected to start our journey from Phoenix.

  • By Plane: $752 plus tax for 2 hours of roundtrip travel
  • Train: $1011 for 34 hours of roundtrip travel
  • Automobile: $104 plus tolls for 12 hours of roundtrip travel

The verdict: The train route here is inconvenient and costly. The non-strop air route is dominated by one airline (U.S. Airways). But taking the highway is surprisingly affordable. Yes, you will need your car to get around the expanse of San Diego County, so that’s more gas you’ll be spending on, but keep in mind that even if you flew, you’ll need a rental car once you’re there. San Diego’s greatest attractions are conveniently located but far enough away from each other. The Phoenix to San Diego drive is easy (and popular).

New Orleans
The Big Easy is making a comeback. The city offers the constant buzz of music and the allure of some of the best food in the South. Many American travelers are making their way back to New Orleans for the fun, albeit with a certain sense of pride (we can call it patriotism on Memorial Day) that comes from lending a neighbor a helping hand.  No doubt, tourism will be key to reinvigorating this city. We started our journey from Atlanta.

  • By Plane: $2004 plus tax for 3 hours of roundtrip travel
  • Train: $492 for 24 hours of roundtrip travel
  • Automobile: $137 plus tolls for 14 hours of roundtrip travel

The verdict: Even in the midst of the New Orleans’ (slow but sure) return to glory, airlines providing non-stop flights are keeping pricing on some routes, including this one, high. You’ll save money if you connect, but the limited time of this holiday weekend makes it an inconvenient option. The train route here is long. But again, making this trip behind the wheel is affordable and the seven-hour one-way drive will get you there in time for brunch if you leave at dawn. 

If you’re still on the hunt for a great hotel bargain at your Memorial Day destination of choice, check out .

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