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As thoughts of summer travel begin to shift into high gear, there is encouraging news for those of you planning to use America's favorite mode of vacation transportation, the family car.

According to the 1990 edition of "Your Driving Costs," published by the American Automobile Association, motoring expenses aren't racing ahead as fast as they were last year and the year before. They are up only 7.8 percent, compared with 12.1 percent in 1989 and 10.1 percent in '88.AAA based its figures on a composite national average for operating three domestically built 1990 passenger cars - a subcompact, a mid-size and a full-size. Expenses for depreciation, financing, taxes, maintenance, tires, gasoline and oil increased at rates similar to those in 1988-89, but there was a smaller increase in the cost of insurance. Also showing a small increase is the average cost of gas and oil, which this year comes out to 5.4 cents a mile, compared with 5.3 cents last year.

A family of four (two adults, two children) can expect to pay $173 per day for accommodations and meals. Add to that another $8.40 for gas, oil, tires and maintenance for every 100 miles of driving with the car averaging 23 miles per gallon.

According to the AAA booklet, food will take the biggest bite out of the daily budget. It suggests the family set aside $93 a day for meals, not including tips or cocktails.

AAA notes food costs may be easier to swallow if you have the main meal at midday, when many restaurants feature special lunch prices. The motoring organization also came up with a figure of $80 as the cost of a night's lodging. It arrived at that number by averaging the rates charged by accommodations listed in their AAA Tour Books.

Included in their calculation was a rate of $5 a night per child, though many lodgings allow children - usually up to age 14 - to stay free.

One of the best ways to save on lodging expenses, the booklet noted, is to make reservations or to arrive early at that day's destination so you'll have a wider choice of accommodations and rates.

And, AAA warns, there is also a big variable that has to be added to your vacation budget - amusements, admission and parking fees and road and bridge tolls.

Since the automobile and travel club first published "Your Driving Costs" in 1950, a lot of things have changed. In 1950, a car driven 10,000 miles a year cost 9 cents a mile and gasoline sold for 27 cents a gallon. This year, gasoline averages $1.14 for a gallon of regular unleaded, and the overall cost to own and operate a new car comes out to 33 cents per mile.

You can get the booklet, which shows you how to figure your automotive expenses, from any AAA office or by writing: "Your Driving Costs," AAA Public Relations, 1000 AAA Dr., Heathrow, Fla. 32746-5063. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope.

AAA came up with its cost estimates based on computations made by Runzheimer International, a management consulting firm that specializes in transportation, travel and living costs.

Its composite results show that the typical business traveler is a male manager who spends 24 nights on the road each year traveling to eight cities. He spends an average of $32.15 a day for three meals. Less than 25 percent of those taking part in the survey reported that they "often" have a cocktail for dinner.

Here are some of the other findings:

Men are twice as likely as women to order a salad as the main course for dinner; women are more likely to order poultry and shellfish.

Forty percent of business travelers skip breakfast on occasion, and 14 percent don't eat breakfast at all.

Almost 25 percent of the time, business travelers have lunch at a fast-food restaurant.

Women business travelers are nearly five times more likely to order room service.

For a free copy of the Business Traveler Meal Survey, write Runzheimer International, Consulting Services Division, 555 Skokie Blvd., Suite 340, Northbrook, Ill. 60062.