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Remember last year’s Memorial Day traffic jams? Expect much worse this year

You didn’t think summer travel would be easy, did you?

Highways and airports are likely to be jammed the next few days as Americans head out for Memorial Day weekend getaways and then return home.

AAA predicts this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years, with 43.8 million people expected to travel at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday. The Transportation Security Administration says up to 3 million might pass through airport checkpoints on Friday alone.

And that is just a sample of what is to come. U.S. airlines expect to carry a record number of passengers this summer. Their trade group estimates that 271 million travelers will fly between June 1 and August 31, breaking the record of 255 million set – you guessed it – last summer.

The annual expression of wanderlust is happening at a time when Americans tell pollsters they are worried about the economy and the direction of the country.

A slowdown, and in some cases a retreat, from the big price increases of the last two years may be helping.

Airfares are down 6% and hotel rates have dipped 0.4%, compared with a year ago, according to government figures released last week. Prices for renting a car or truck are down 10%. The nationwide price of gas is around $3.60 a gallon, about 6 cents higher than a year ago, according to AAA.

Johannes Thomas, CEO of the hotel and travel search company Trivago, said he thinks more customers are feeling the pinch of prices that have plateaued but at much higher levels than before the pandemic. He said they are booking farther in advance, staying closer to home, taking shorter trips, and compromising on accommodations — staying in three-star hotels instead of five-star ones.

Many travelers have their own cost-saving strategies, including combining work and pleasure on the same trip.

“I have largely been able to adapt by traveling at strange hours. I’ll fly out late at night, come in early in the morning, stay longer than I intended, and work remotely,” said Lauren Hartle of Boston, an investor for a clean-energy venture firm.

Hartle, who flew from Boston to Dallas on Wednesday for a work conference, plans to attend a summer family gathering in North Carolina but is otherwise considering trips closer to home — and maybe by train instead of plane.

Catey Schast, a nanny and piano teacher in Maine, said her Boston-Dallas flight cost $386 round trip. “It wasn’t terrible,” but it was higher than the $200 to $300 she paid in the past to visit family in Texas, she said.

Schast plans a beach vacation in Florida in July. High prices could discourage her from taking other trips, but “if I really want to go somewhere, I’m more of a how-can-I-make-this-happen type of person, as long as I have the time off work.”

As in past years, most holiday travelers are expected to travel by car – more than 38 million of them, according to AAA. The organization advises motorists hoping to avoid the worst traffic to leave metropolitan areas early Thursday and Friday and to stay off the roads between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday.

“We haven’t seen any pullback in travel since the pandemic. Year after year, we have seen these numbers continue to grow,” AAA spokesperson Aixa Diaz said. “We don’t know when it’s going to stop. There’s no sign of it yet.”

There’s certainly no slowdown at airports. The number of people going through security checkpoints is up 3.2% this year. The TSA said it screened 2.85 million people last Friday and nearly as many on Sunday — the two busiest days of the year so far.

TSA predicts it will screen more than 18 million travelers and airline crew members during the seven-day stretch that begins Thursday, up 6.4% from last year. Friday is expected to be the busiest day for air travel, with nearly 3 million people passing through checkpoints. The TSA record is 2.91 million, set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“We’re going to break those records this summer,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said.

The agency, which was created after the 9/11 terror attacks, has struggled at times with peak loads. Pekoske told The Associated Press that pay raises for front-line screeners have helped improve staffing by reducing attrition from more than 20% to less than 10%.

Airlines say they also have staffed up since being caught short when travel began to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring and summer of 2022.

With any luck from the weather, travelers could see fewer canceled flights than in recent summers. So far this year, U.S. airlines have canceled 1.2% of their flights, according to FlightAware data, compared with 1.4% at this point last year and 2.8% in 2022 — a performance so poor it triggered complaints and increased scrutiny from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Even before the holiday weekend started, however, storms caused widespread cancellations at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the biggest hub for American Airlines. The carrier dropped more than 200 flights, or 5% of its schedule, by late afternoon.

Stranded travelers were not happy.

“Our flight got canceled right before the check-in. And now there’s no flights here until Friday because (open seats on other flights) went really quickly. We might wind up driving. Isn’t that terrible?” said Rosie Gutierrez of Allen, Texas, who was trying to get to Florida along with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

American’s chief operating officer, David Seymour, said the airline has beefed up its staffing and technology in preparation for the seasonal rush.

“It’s a long summer, but we’re ready for it. We have the right resources,” he said.

American is offering its most ambitious summer schedule ever — 690,000 flights between May 17 and Sept. 3.

United Airlines forecasts its biggest Memorial Day weekend, with nearly 10% more passengers than last year. Delta Air Lines expects to carry 5% more passengers this weekend, kicking off its heaviest summer schedule ever of international flights.

According to AAA, the top domestic and international destinations are familiar ones. They include Orlando, Las Vegas, London, Paris and Rome.

So what about nervousness over the economy?

It’s important to note that people often say their own finances are better than average. In an AP survey from February, 54% said their personal situation was good — but only 30% felt the same about the nation’s economy.

That could explain why they can afford to splurge on travel.

___

Rebecca Santana and Rick Gentilo in Washington contributed to this report.

Rating the best rental car companies in 2024 (and ‘best’ is not so good)

If taking an airline flight doesn’t generate enough anxiety, there’s the march from the arrival gate to the rental car counter. A recent report from the ConsumerAffairs watchdog organization examined consumers’ experiences to rate the best rental car companies from among eight major brands. The highest score possible was five stars, with one star the lowest.

The top rated company, National, received 2.3 stars.

That’s not an awfully convincing measure of trust. And consider that six of the eight rental firms were each rated at less that two stars. Besides National and its sister brands — Enterprise and Alamo — the companies that were ranked in the survey included Hertz, which owns Dollar and Thrifty, and Avis, aligned with Budget.

What’s wrong with this picture? The customer reactions can be attributed to one major factor: frustration. To illustrate the situations, ConsurmerAffairs asked some customers to tell them about their dealings with rental car services.

Among them was Drew, of Lakeville, Minn., who said he rented a car from Alamo at the Sarasota, Fla., airport. After driving off the lot, he said a dashboard warning advised that there was zero percent of life left in the engine oil, suggesting the vehicle had not been serviced recently.

“After speaking to roadside assistance, they told me I was unable to drive the vehicle and they were sending someone to tow the vehicle and setting up an Uber to bring me to another branch to exchange the vehicle,” Drew wrote. But Drew said the new location had no cars. He was told to drive to his lodging and that a manager would call with a new plan. Drew said no call ever came.

Another episode involved tolls. A Massachusetts woman said she’d rented a car from Dollar at San Francisco’s airport and was asked if she would cross any toll bridges. Nope, she said. Nonetheless, she was charged an extra $134.91 for pre-paid tolls, just in case. She said she was told she would be credited that amount if she encountered no tolls.

“When I returned the car I told the attendant that I did not use any toll roads and wanted that charge removed,” she told the consumer group. “He told me I would have to speak with someone in the office. I contacted them when I returned home and was told that since I signed the rental agreement with the charge, that I was responsible for the charges.”

ConsumerAffairs has compiled more examples of rental car drama, listed here.

Rating the best car rental companies in 2024:

  1. National, 2.3 stars
  2. Alamo, 2.1
  3. Enterprise, 1.6
  4. Dollar, 1.2
  5. Hertz, 1.1
  6. Thrifty, 1.1
  7. Avis, 1.1
  8. Budget, 1.1

Costco Auto Program adds the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra through July

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Costco Auto Program adds the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra through July originally appeared on Autoblog on Mon, 3 Jun 2024 12:45:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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U.S. drivers in this study have the lowest fuel costs in the world

Owning a car comes with a bunch of unexpected expenses, but most people understand that fuel costs are a big part of the process. Britain’s Xcite Car Leasing recently analyzed fuel costs compiled by GlobalPetrolPrices.com, which showed that drivers in the U.S. pay the least in fuel costs worldwide.

That is, the U.S. is cheapest at least among the nations included in the study. Because Xcite is a British firm, it was most interested in comparing the United Kingdom to the U.S. and the rest of Europe. Note that not even, say, Canada is on this list. But it’s a good reminder that the United States, which among other things is the world’s biggest petroleum producer, is better off than many/most places, if not all.

The United States joins Turkey and Bulgaria as the three countries in the survey with the cheapest global fuel prices. The data looked at gas, diesel and electricity prices in May 2023, and even measured availability of public EV chargers.

The top 10 countries with the cheapest gas prices:

  1. United States
  2. Turkey
  3. Bulgaria
  4. Romania
  5. Hungary
  6. Spain
  7. Sweden
  8. Austria
  9. Portugal
  10. Poland
  11. Czech Republic
  12. Belgium
  13. Germany

The United States’ gas prices were only slightly cheaper than Turkey’s, at 97 cents per liter — which comes out to $3.67 a gallon. (And in fact, the U.S. average price in that calculation is actually higher than the average calculated by AAA for that week in May, which was $3.53.)

The U.S. average for diesel was $1.05 per liter ($3.97/gallon). Turkey landed at $1.26 per liter. Both have solid electricity prices, but they are behind other countries’ EV charging infrastructure to a notable degree. The United States has just 0.05 chargers per square mile compared to the Netherlands, which has 9.02.

Italy was ranked as the most expensive country in the study for fuel, thanks in part to its high electricity costs and sparse EV infrastructure. Xcite noted that the country’s fuel costs are not the most expensive, an honor that Denmark earned, but Italy’s poor scores in electricity costs and other areas helped it grab the “top” spot.

The Xcite study was conducted with an eye on the European market. There, diesel costs are expected to climb significantly over the next two decades. Countries like Sweden and Turkey could see diesel fuel prices increase by as much as 80 percent over the next 30 years.

Diesel prices are one thing, but gas (petrol) prices are another. Switzerland is expected to have the highest gas prices by 2050. Turkey and the U.S. remain at the bottom of the list, but all countries in the study showed significant gains in gas prices over 30 years.

Just looking as far out as 2030, the data indicate Americans will be paying an average of £0.89/liter ($3.37/gallon), still the cheapest by far. While on the more expensive end of the range, drivers in Denmark and Sweden could be paying over £2/liter — that’s $9.60/gallon. 

The 10 cheapest vehicles to own and operate over 5 years

It’s no secret that cars cost money to own and operate, but the differences in running expenses between models can be shocking. MarketWatch Guides‘ new study calculated the five-year costs for gas models, finding that the Hyundai Venue is less than half as expensive to own as some luxury vehicles.

The Venue’s five-year costs amounted to $22,761 in the study, followed by the Hyundai Elantra at $22,788.

The 10 cheapest vehicles to run for 5 years:

  1. Hyundai Venue: $22,761
  2. Hyundai Elantra: $22,788
  3. Nissan Sentra: $23,407
  4. Honda Accord: $23,509
  5. Toyota Corolla: $23,854
  6. Hyundai Tucson: $24,543
  7. Kia Soul: $24,543
  8. Hyundai Sonata: $25,788
  9. Ford Escape ST-Line Select: $25,869
  10. Volkswagen Tiguan: $26,149

MarketWatch used gas, insurance, repairs, and financing costs to calculate its running expenses. Looking at the purchase prices of the vehicles on this list, it’s not surprising to see that most of them are going for affordability, and that extends to operating expenses. The Venue’s 31 mpg combined fuel economy rating likely helped it achieve its impressively low running costs.

A handful of models went the opposite way. The most expensive vehicle to run in the study, the Porsche Cayenne, required an outlay of $56,010 over five years. The Porsche Macan was second, at $48,653, and the BMW X5 xDrive40i was third, at $48,456.

The study did not use depreciation to calculate running costs, but MarketWatch ran the numbers to separately compare residual values between comparable gas and electric models. The Mini Cooper Countryman and Mini Cooper Electric had similar depreciation costs over five years, with just $283 between their numbers. The Chevy Malibu and Chevy Bolt were second closest after five years, with $635 between them. The Audi A3 and Audi E-Tron GT had the most significant difference in depreciation, with the electric E-Tron registering a $29,164 larger price drop after the five-year period.

2024 GMC Acadia First Drive Review: Big on character

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2024 GMC Acadia First Drive Review: Big on character originally appeared on Autoblog on Thu, 13 Jun 2024 09:00:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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2025 GMC Terrain fully revealed in spy photos

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2025 GMC Terrain fully revealed in spy photos originally appeared on Autoblog on Mon, 10 Jun 2024 11:51:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Why the Fourth of July is summer’s deadliest holiday on the roads

Independence Day is about fireworks, parades and picnics, sure, but there’s another reality — and it’s a sad counterpoint to what’s supposed to be a celebration of freedom. The Fourth of July is the deadliest summer holiday on the roads.

This is partly because the holiday is pegged to a specific date. Though it can come on a weekend or be weekend adjacent, some years it falls midweek, on Thursday in 2024 for example. You don’t always get a long weekend like Labor Day or Memorial Day, so driving travel can be more concentrated, sometimes even down to the one day. A lot of drinking and other bad decisions can be concentrated on that day too. And more than those other holidays, Fourth of July events coast-to-coast bring out huge crowds. 

The folks at the Jerry insurance app took a hard look at NHTSA crash data along with Census Bureau info and came up with some numbers and charts that you might find sobering (literally) this Fourth, when a record 60.6 million Americans are expected to be traveling: 

  • There has been an average total of 429 fatal crashes nationwide on the Fourth of July each year between 2016-2022. That’s up 17% from the average in 2008-2015.
  • There were nearly 500 deaths by impaired drivers over a Fourth holiday weekend in 2022.
  • Nearly half the crashes, 47%, involved some combination of speeding, drinking and drugs. A third, 31%, involved speeding; a third, 32%, involved at least one driver under the influence of alcohol; and another 12% involved drugs. 
  • Three-quarters (73%) of car-crash fatalities on the Fourth are male. The majority had been drinking.
  • Over half (52%) of those killed in crashes are under 40 years old. Two-thirds (66%) of the deaths in that age group were in drinking-related crashes.
  • There’s a huge time-of-day uptick for deadly crashes, happening between 9 p.m. and midnight as people drive home from parties and fireworks shows. There’s another uptick after 1 a.m. when you add bar closings to that.
  • In some cities and states, the carnage is worse than others. Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit have the most fatal crashes, likewise California, Texas and Florida, which is not surprising given their size. (California alone registered three times as many fatal crashes as New York).
  • But when measured per capita, Detroit, Memphis and Kansas City are the worst. Also Montana and the Dakotas, perhaps because of greater distances driven. 
  • And the problem is not just cars — Mothers Against Drunk Driving points out that boating fatalities involving alcohol are also a big problem over the Fourth. The U.S. Coast Guard concurs that the effects of alcohol on judgment and reaction times are greatly amplified on the water.

To address the problem of young people drinking on the Fourth, MADD recommends using strategies from the Power of Parents Handbook, saying a five-year study concluded that the book helps teens become more likely to decline rides from impaired drivers and less likely to drive when impaired themselves. 

The Jerry app’s report features a dozen revealing charts. We’ve included two of them here, but for a deeper dive, you should check out the full report.

On the Fourth, fireworks aren’t the only risk. Have a safe and sane one.

It’s not just Big Oil: A look at Big Corn, which is also suing over EPA emissions rules

Last week, Reuters reported that “Oil and corn groups team up against Biden’s tailpipe emissions rules.” Presidential elections always restore corn to the headlines because corn is such enormous business that the tall grass should be called “Gold on the Cob.” That’s not just gold for farmers, either, thanks to corn’s requirements and reach. Industrial farming companies like Cargill, chemical companies like DuPont and Monsanto, and ethanol refiners like Poet Biorefining and Archer Daniels Midland all derive massive benefit from the amazing maize.

The corn lobby has a touchy relationship with Big Oil. When the Associated Press published “The Secret, Dirty Cost of Obama’s Green Power Push” in 2013 (highly recommended read), we’re told, “An industry blog in Minnesota said the AP had succumbed ‘to Big Oil’s deep pockets and powerful influence.'”

As governments have taken more steps to enact regulations aiming to curb greenhouse gasses, though, corn finds common cause with oil. Mandated reductions in traditional fuel usage threaten refiner profits, and less fuel used — or no liquid fuel, at least directly, in the case of electric vehicles — means less ethanol added, reducing ethanol purchases and subsidies distributed along the value chain. Various lawsuits filed against the EPA in the past few weeks represent the combined forces of the American Petroleum Institute, National Corn Growers Association, American Farm Bureau Federation, Renewable Fuels Association and National Farmers Union.

It’s a topic so big it could come up in tonight’s presidential debate (CNN and other channels, 9 p.m. Eastern). The higher fuel economy standards are an initiative of President Biden’s administration (he made a case for ethanol in 2022 in a speech inside a Poet Biofuels building); former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, complains about EVs every chance he gets. The big business of corn is one reason why. 

RFA President and CEO Geoff Cooper summed up the problem for the ethanol lobby with, “[The] EPA grossly exceeded its statutory authority by finalizing regulations that effectively mandate the production of EVs, while blatantly excluding the ability of flex fuel vehicles and low-carbon, high-octane renewable fuels like ethanol to achieve significant vehicle emissions reductions.”

Using ethanol to power cars and reformulate gasoline isn’t new. Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T could run on ethanol because gasoline wasn’t the commodity it is today. Refiners began mixing ethanol into gasoline in the 1920s to get higher octane ratings, which reduced knock (lead was a much more famous octane enhancer). And ethanol use spiked during World War II when gas supplies were diverted to the U.S. military.

The Calgren Renewable Fuels ethanol plant in Pixley, Calif. (AP)

The upsides

Ethanol subsidies aren’t new. They began in the U.S. with the Energy Policy Act of 1978, and remained in effect as either a subsidy and/or tax credit until the end of the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit in 2011, by which time the system was said to cost the government more than $5 billion per year. Well, the payouts didn’t end, really, the government simply created new methods of providing incentives, grants, loan guarantees, production payments and tax credits.  

Leaning on ethanol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions isn’t new, either. The 1990 Clean Air Act required more oxygenated gasoline in areas of the country with elevated ground-level ozone measurements. Increased oxygenate helps gasoline burn more completely during combustion, reducing the amount of carbon monoxide, soot, and environmentally harmful compounds that escape from a vehicle’s tailpipe.

Ethanol and MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) became popular oxygenates. As researchers began to question MTBE’s ability to break down in water, though, ethanol — an organic resource — found more favor. As some states began declaring MTBE unwelcome beginning in 2000, the U.S. government’s 2003 Energy Bill declared ethanol the only legal fuel oxygenate for the U.S. market.

That established a federally guaranteed market for ethanol for the first time (as opposed to refiners having a choice in oxygenate). Ethanol doesn’t need to be made with corn — sorghum is another option — but renewable fuel in the U.S. today is effectively corn-based.

Two years after that energy bill, the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exploded ethanol’s guaranteed market. The RFS instructs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to decide on a minimum volume of renewable fuels to be included in the nation’s fossil fuel supply every year. The volumes, called Renewable Volume Obligations (RVO), change based on government agency predictions of fuel usage. The renewables take four forms: Conventional biofuel (also called renewable fuel in EPA parlance); biomass-based diesel; “other advanced biofuel;” and cellulosic biofuel.

Big crop, big business

U.S. Department of Agriculture tables on U.S. Bioenergy Statistics show the effects all this legislation has had on corn production. In the first quarter of 1986, 3.5% of corn production by bushel went to fuel alcohol use. That percentage crossed into double digits for the first time in Q3 of 2002, when 11.9% of corn production went to fuel alcohol use.

From December 2022 to February 2023, 35.7% of U.S. corn production went to make ethanol. Another table in the Bioenergy Statics spreadsheet shows that for the full year of 2023, 5.3 billion bushels of corn went to ethanol production.

Sorghum maxed out at 131 million bushels used for ethanol back in 2016; for the past two years, there’s no data for sorghum.

All that corn got plugged into satisfying the EPA’s “renewable volume obligation” for the nation’s fuel supply; in 2023, that was 20.82 billion gallons of renewable fuel poured into the 143 billion gallons of gas American drivers chugged through last year. The RVO for 2024 is 21.81 billion gallons or 13.55% of the nation’s predicted fuel usage. In 2025, the RVO will be 22.68 billion gallons or 13.05%.

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So it is that corn is America’s largest agricultural commodity crop and the U.S. is the world’s largest corn grower, and it’s not even close.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that in 2023, farmers grew a record 15.3 billion bushels of corn on 86.5 million acres of land, compared to just 4.16 billion bushels of soybeans, the second-biggest crop, on 82.4 million acres. Add the yields for soybeans, grain, rice and cotton, and they don’t come close to half of last year’s corn crop.

Only 1% of corn grown is the sweet corn we eat at meals. The rest, often called field corn or dent corn, is used for products like corn meal, high fructose corn syrup and plastics. But on average, roughly 40% of field corn ends up at the pumps.

It’s tough to find subsidy amounts the government pays to farmers for corn production not strictly related to ethanol. USA Facts data claims that in 2016, corn farmers received $2.2 billion in government subsidies, beating the individual amounts disbursed for soybeans, sugar, cotton, wheat, oranges, livestock, hay and forage, and “all others.”

On top of this, a giant export market that the government continues to fight to expand gives corn growers a ton of power that can turn into additional government payments.

So when you hear about farmers going on a date to Washington, D.C., with The Seven Sisters to challenge some EPA action, these are the numbers compelling the union.

The downsides

And none of this gets into the underside of the issue, the, let’s say, debatable aspects about corn-based ethanol: The tradeoff for lower vehicle emissions being what some believe are horrific environmental consequences. The same way high gas prices made shale oil and fracking good business propositions, the RFS encouraged farmers to plant corn in places historically considered unwelcome, tilling huge amounts of virgin prairie and conserved land in the process.

Tilling that land is said to have unlocked enough carbon dioxide that it would take two decades for the planted field to absorb it. The enormous water needs to grow corn are blamed for lowering water tables. Excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers to maximize yields sucks oxygen from the soil and water, leading to dead zones in waterways, including an enormous zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured the Gulf’s dead zone at roughly 6,334 square miles, larger than the average dead zone for the previous five years of 5,380 square miles. That’s an area larger than the state of Connecticut, hovering mostly off the coast of America’s second-largest seafood producing state, Louisiana.

And even before all of that, the founding presumptions of the RFS have been questioned since the beginning. Many suspect corn-based ethanol can’t be made to work with the Renewable Fuels Standard without some creative numbers.

The RFS stipulates that “Renewable fuel (or conventional biofuel) typically refers to ethanol derived from corn starch and must meet a 20% lifecycle GHG [greenhouse gas] reduction,” meaning corn ethanol would be 20% less polluting than gasoline. But when the Obama administration tried to work out the math for implementing the RFS way back in 2009, it found that corn ethanol would only be 16% less polluting than gasoline by 2022, based on a maximum yield of 180 bushels of corn per acre.

All the stakeholders complained, saying the government’s figures were too conservative. So the EPA came up with a “high yield case scenario” that achieved a 21% reduction by assuming a yield of 230 bushels per acre. (Getting more bushels off an acre means it took fewer resources to grow each bushel, so it’s environmentally cleaner.)

The problem is that corn growers have never hit that yield number. The yield in 2014 was about 173 bushels per acre. Last year’s yield was 177 bushels per acre, right around the original, and insufficient, government estimate.

Corn might not come up in tonight’s presidential debate. But for all the reasons we’ve touched on here, and so many more (food prices, high-fructose corn syrup, the list goes on), corn will continue to be a big topic from now until November and beyond.

Used cars to avoid, ranked by Consumer Reports

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Used cars to avoid, ranked by Consumer Reports originally appeared on Autoblog on Wed, 26 Jun 2024 11:05:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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