Gas prices creep toward $3 just in time for holiday travels

Don’t expect high fuel prices to deter Floridians from taking to the highways this Thanksgiving.

Travel experts project gas prices to hover between $2.85 and $2.95 through the Thanksgiving holiday in Southwest Florida.

Jessica Brady, a spokesperson for the American Automobile Association (AAA), predicts 2.1 million Floridians to travel 50 miles or more by automobile this Thanksgiving — an 11 percent increase from last year. She says while the market resembles a roller coaster as it reacts to news from Europe and Asia, looking at Friday’s crude oil prices will offer a good indication for prices at the pump the following week.

“The real kicker is on Friday, when crude oil closes,” says Brady. “That price will determine the week ahead prices.”

And Floridians aren’t the only ones not letting higher fuel costs sideline their holiday plans. AAA anticipates an 11.4 percent increase in travel nation wide, Brady says. And more travelers mean more revenue, with every person spending an average of $495 per trip and traveling an average of 816 miles roundtrip, up one dollar and one mile from last year’s figures.

Patrick DeHaan, Senior Petroleum Analyst with GasBuddy.com, an Internet site that tracks local gas prices across the country, agrees with AAA’s projections. Going by past fuel price trends, DeHaan forecasts gas to remain in a holding pattern until 2011 before going up. He says that a good litmus test for gas prices is the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

“If the Dow moves up or down more than 100 points, gasoline prices usually follow with a three to five day lag,” DeHaan says.

He says that last year’s average fuel cost for the Southwest Florida region was around $2.60 per gallon. But that, DeHaan says, was an indication of the wheezing economy that ultimately sidelined people from traveling.

“Generally the economy has improved, although the job market may not reflect it,’ DeHaan says. “This leads to more belief that demand will rise. We’re basically paying for that speculation.”

DeHaan also points out that the further south you travel in Florida, the more you pay at the pump. He compares Orlando’s average fuel costs on Wednesday of $2.95 to $3.09 in Miami.

Jessica Brady of AAA gives several recommendations for saving money while driving over the Thanksgiving Day weekend:

n Fill up before you go. Gas stations close to the Interstate, while convenient, typically charge more. Brady says shop locally for the best price before you embark on your trip.

n Pay cash. Many gas stations charge more for fuel purchased with a credit card. Brady says that paying with cash can save up to $.10/gallon.

n Make sure your tires are properly inflated and you’re up-to-date on an oil change or any other engine services. These small steps can improve fuel efficiency.

n Find out what crude oil prices closed out at on Friday afternoon. If prices went up, fill up your tanks to avoid higher prices over the next few days. If crude oil prices dropped, wait a few days until those prices trickle down to the local level.

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