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Are inflation, high gas prices making travel a summer bummer?

New Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll shows high costs thwarting vacation plans

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A traveler walks past “The Falls” sculpture at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City.

A traveler walks past “The Falls” sculpture at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 1, 2022. A majority of Utah residents are now considering scaling back or postponing summer travel plans in the face of ongoing inflationary pressures and record-high gas prices, according to new polling data.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A majority of Utah residents are now considering scaling back or postponing summer travel plans in the face of ongoing inflationary pressures and record-high gas prices, according to new polling data.

And, the survey results align with local and national consumer sentiment measures that hit all-time lows in June when it comes to the collective outlook on economic conditions.

A statewide Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll of 808 registered voters conducted June 16-29 found that gas prices and inflation are the most important considerations in deciding whether or not to travel in the next three months.

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Gas prices were rated at the top for 53% of respondents and inflation was the No. 1 concern for 41% of poll participants. COVID-19 case levels and hotel availability each drew top concern ratings from 18% of respondents, though nearly a third indicated the ongoing pandemic wasn’t a consideration in their decision to travel.

The new polling data, collected by Dan Jones & Associates, comes with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.45 percentage points.

U.S. inflation rates took a brief dip in April but shot back to a 40-year high of 8.6% in May, according to the most recent consumer price index report from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Mountain West states, which include Utah, continued to have some of the highest regional inflation in the country with the average prices of goods and services rising 9.4% in May, down from April’s 9.8% uptick.

U.S. consumers are now paying for groceries that are up 11.9% over last year, gas that’s up 48.7% over 2021 and shelter expenses that have risen 5.5% since May 2021.

Prices of new and used vehicles also continue to surge, up 12.6% and 16.1%, respectively.

America’s rampant inflation is imposing severe pressures on families, forcing them to pay much more for food, gas and rent and reducing their ability to afford discretionary items, from haircuts to electronics to vacations. Lower-income and Black and Hispanic Americans, in particular, are struggling because, on average, a larger proportion of their income is consumed by necessities.

And while the national average price of gas has declined over the past several weeks since reaching the $5 per gallon mark nationally last month, Utah drivers have continued to encounter record-high prices at their local pumps.

On Friday, AAA reported the average U.S. price for a gallon of regular is now $4.72 per gallon and down from a record $5.02 per gallon in mid-June. In Utah, the average price per gallon on Friday came in at $5.22, just a few cents down from the state’s all-time-high of $5.26 set on July 1.

And, data gathered in the new Deseret News poll found that Utahns are feeling that extra cost in ways that are leading to changes in their summer travel itineraries.

When asked by pollsters how current gas prices are impacting their travel plans this summer, 47% of respondents said they are likely going to take fewer trips, 31% said that shorter trips were in order, 17% said they were likely to postpone planned trips and 11% said they would likely flat-out cancel summer travel.

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Phil Dean, senior economist with the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, reviewed the poll findings and said responses from Utah consumers line up with the kinds of behavior changes economists expect to see amid prices for consumer goods and services that have shot up at record pace over the past few months.

“It’s not a surprise to see how higher prices are directly impacting how Utah residents are thinking about summer travel plans,” Dean said. “The costs of basic necessities are up, and those are the areas that we really feel the most. Every time you’re at the pump, you get a reminder of where things are at.”

Dean also noted that a recent measure of consumer sentiment in the state reflects some of the same concerns Utahn’s shared in the new Deseret News polling.

June data gathered by the Gardner Institute found Utah consumer sentiment dropped almost five points from May to June when asked about the state’s near-term economic prospects to 64.4, the lowest measure since the monthly survey began in 2020. And Utahns are even less optimistic about the country’s economic prospects that earned a 54.1 confidence rating in June.

A similar survey by the University of Michigan found a larger decline in sentiment during June among Americans as a whole. June’s national consumer sentiment index reflects the lowest reading in the Michigan survey’s 70-year history.

“Not surprisingly, consumers of all backgrounds remain very frustrated about high inflation. Indeed, anyone younger than 40 has not seen rates this high in their lifetime,” Dean said in a statement on the sentiment report. “This high inflation includes many everyday items, including $5 per-gallon gasoline and elevated food prices. Persistent high prices force consumers to reorient their short-term thinking about today’s purchases and wages and sow seeds of uncertainty about the long-term future.”

While some economists are predicting the U.S. is verging on a recessionary period, Dean says he still holds out some optimism that it can be avoided and noted there are some signs that price pressures are easing.

Dean is also bullish, with some caveats, about the ability of the state’s overall economy to weather a further downturn, should one be in the offing.

“Utah remains very well situated from an economic standpoint,” he said. “We’re not an island and national and global economic conditions do impact us. But, we still have a lot of growth potential in front of us and a young well-educated population, relative to many places. And, we have lower cost of doing business.

“My biggest concern, short and long term about the trajectory of our state economy is housing affordability, and making sure we get that taken care of.”