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NEW YORK (Reuters) - With the weather warming and gasoline costs dropping, Ken Hyman is looking forward to hitting the open road in his Mustang convertible as Americans head back to the highways in higher numbers this summer.
"You feel free," said Hyman, 67, who likes to wax nostalgic about the feeling of wind in his hair as he drives down the highway.
And he's not the only U.S. driver looking forward to holiday road travel this year.
AAA travel and auto group on Tuesday forecast a 1.5 percent rise in travel compared with 2008 for the U.S. Memorial Day weekend, the beginning of the traditional summer driving season.
The trend will likely continue during the major summer travel holidays of the Fourth of July and Labor Day as lower fuel prices reignite the American love affair with the open road, according to AAA.
"The good news is sharply lower gasoline prices and plentiful travel bargains have Americans feeling better about taking a road trip this summer," AAA President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Darbelnet said.
Lower gasoline prices, travel bargains and pent-up consumer demand will trump concerns about the recession during major holidays this summer, he said.
Approximately 32.4 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the three-day weekend that ends on Monday, May 25, up from 31.9 million last year.
The majority of Memorial Day travelers, 83 percent, will travel by car, while 7 percent will travel by air, and 10 percent will travel by other modes of transportation including rail, buses and watercraft.
Trips by automobile will increase 2.7 percent, from 26.3 million travelers last year, to 27 million this year as Americans take advantage of gasoline prices that are down nearly 40 percent from year-ago levels.
The national average U.S. retail gasoline price was $2.24 per gallon on Tuesday, according to AAA, down from $3.71 per gallon a year ago. The group has said it does not expect prices to rise above the $2.50 per gallon level this summer.
Cheap gasoline prices are the main reason Jessica Brady, a 27-year-old public relations specialist from Tampa, Florida, will take some weekend trips to local springs.
"These were some things that we didn't do last year because of gas prices," said Brady, who owns a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle.
In contrast to auto travel, trips by air will decrease 1 percent during Memorial Day due to contracted airline schedules and irritants such as fees for checked luggage, AAA's Darbelnet said.
And despite the uptick in overall travel for the Memorial Day weekend, experts say that there are still signs the economic situation is affecting summer travel plans.
"With the economy as it is and the fear of potentially losing a job, people are taking more or a wait and see attitude. So, they are booking closer to their departure date," said Andi McClure-Mysza, president of Professional Association of Travel Hosts.
Janet Heed, of Crestwood, New York, is still undecided as to whether her family will take a trip to Florida this summer.
"We're nervous," said Heed, who is worried about layoffs at the bank where her husband works. Booking tickets now for a trip later in the summer could be risky, she said.
"I think I want to make the decision a little closer to the time," Heed said.
In addition, those in the travel industry report that many are trying to keep their trips closer to home to scale back on spending.
Budget Travel is featuring trips that require only one tank of gasoline in its June issue, as the magazine tries to accommodate people who may want to stay closer to home because of job security concerns, said Amy Chen, assistant editor at Budget Travel.
But despite the recession, most Americans are still going to get away -- in a recent survey of American Express travel agents, 66 percent said their summer vacation is too important to their peace of mind to give up, despite the economy.
"We know that as a nation we are not out of the woods yet," Darbelnet said. "But one thing is clear -- we are not about to give up something most Americans perceive to be a birthright, and that is our freedom to travel."
Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Lisa Shumaker