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Gasoline costly? So be it

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If you're thinking about driving away from Salt Lake City this weekend, make sure you have a full tank of gas and a fuller wallet before you go.

Many popular tourism destinations for Wasatch Front deserters have gasoline prices higher than the $1.54 hanging from station signs here, and the prices are usually at least 20 cents above last year's Labor Day weekend figures.

Still, AAA expects one in eight Utahns will travel during the three-day period. That echoes a national trend: 33.7 million Americans — up 5 percent from last year — are expected to travel more than 100 miles from home during the upcoming weekend.

"It seems like what we're finding is that when the economy is strong, people will just pay the price," said Rolayne Fairclough, a spokeswoman for AAA Utah. "People will absorb that increase in a strong economy when they're feeling secure."

Utah's average for a gallon of regular, unleaded gasoline is $1.59, up 20 cents from a year ago and only a penny off July's record high. Nationally, the average is $1.51, up a quarter from Labor Day weekend 1999.

Typical prices Wednesday were up year-over-year generally in California, 19 cents; Los Angeles/Long Beach, 13 cents; Las Vegas, 26 cents; Montana, 23 cents; Wyoming, 23 cents; and Nevada, 24 cents.

While year-over-year figures were not available for certain destinations, motorists on Wednesday were paying $1.64 in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; $1.66 in Moab; and $1.61 in St. George.

And those figures actually might creep upward during the weekend, if station owners follow a pattern of raising prices during heavy holiday weekend travel.

"Gas prices have been pretty stable here for the past four months, and I don't anticipate they would increase or decrease (this weekend)," said John Castle, a coordinator of activities for the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce.

"And I don't anticipate gas prices affecting the number of visitors."

Julie Mueller, executive director of the Moab Area Chamber of Commerce, said she expects high gas prices to have little if any effect on the throng of RVs, minivans and campers rolling through town.

"I see a lot of people driving by in RVs and major trailers and buses. They're coming into town anyway," she said.

"That's the way it's been all summer. I thought we'd see a major crash in our economy because of high gas prices, but it's one of those things that's hard to judge. There are so many big vehicles coming in, so it's apparently not stopping people."

Kim Daley, communications manager for the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, said she expects the usual Utah contingent this weekend.

"I don't think gas prices will have much effect in keeping people away," she said. "The dollar is so strong, and gas prices here are pretty reflective of what they are around the Rocky Mountain region.

"People are feeling they have the means to travel even if gas prices are high. All summer long, we've had quite a few people coming up here. We've been asking people if it has been affecting their travel, and they've said it hasn't whatsoever."

Fairclough noted that with food, lodging and souvenirs demanding tourists' money, gas prices may reflect only a small part of a family vacation budget. After all, if a person has an RV, they should be able to afford the gas, right? And some travelers have no quibble with paying $1.60 for gasoline if they're paying a similar amount for their bottled water.

AAA Utah is discouraging travel to parts of Montana and Idaho suffering from forest fires, but officials in Utah and Wyoming are hoping cooler weather this weekend will encourage more people to hit the road.

If they do, and if they're worried about the gas prices, Fairclough has some advice. "If they just get off the freeway and go into town a bit, they can find a better price," she said. "Especially if they know where they're going, it can be worth the drive. But they shouldn't spend half a day looking for gas."

E-MAIL: bwallace@desnews.com