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America Hits The Road

A nation that largely stayed home between the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq got out of the house in July, a trend that's expected to continue this Labor Day weekend.

Independence Hall saw a 48 percent jump in attendance last month over July 2002, and hotel occupancy was up 2.4 percent across the nation, the first significant increase this year. New York City and San Francisco both saw July occupancy rise more than 6 percent over 2002. Chicago was up 5.7 percent, Philadelphia 4.4 percent.

AAA says it expects 33.4 million Americans to travel more than 50 miles from home this holiday weekend, the most since at least 1995.

"Travel definitely has picked up," said Jennifer Busey, manager of Franklin Travel in Champaign, Ill. "The stock market goes up, people have a little more money, and they take a trip. It all goes together."

Jan Freitag, an analyst at Smith Travel Research in Henderson, Tenn., said both leisure and business travelers are helping to fill hotels. Occupancy at resort locations was up 3.4 percent last month over July 2002, he said.

"This probably has something to do with the fact people aren't going overseas," Freitag said. "Urban locations are also up, which to us is an indicator that people are traveling more on business."

While room occupancy is up, room prices have been flat, Freitag said, meaning hotels are discounting prices to coax travelers to leave home.

Tourists around the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia on Tuesday said prices influenced their travel decision.

"The discounts," said Sherry Sherman, when asked why she, her two kids and husband chose to travel from New York City. The family bought discounted Amtrak tickets and got a free night at a hotel. "The whole package was very good," she said.

Gas prices, at near record highs nationwide, have been pushed up in part because of steep demand. From July 19 to Aug. 15, Americans used 9.4 million barrels per day, the highest four-week period on record, said Doug MacIntyre, an analyst for the federal Energy Information Administration.

"If gasoline demand is up, that would lead to the conclusion that either there's more cars or they're being driven more," he said. "The assumption is that maybe due to some of the poor weather people put off their vacations until the end of summer."

Justin McNaull, a spokesman for the AAA, said higher gas prices won't deter Labor Day travelers.

"A trip of a couple hundred miles, you're going to add only $3 or $5 to the trip," he said.

July's 2.4 percent national occupancy increase was the first increase in 2003 since January, when occupancy was up 0.2 percent over the previous year, Freitag said. He said he's "cautiously optimistic" July's upward trend will continue into the fall.

"That's the question of the moment: Is this a trend or is this a blip?" Freitag said.

By Jason Straziuso