More U.S. drivers are cutting back on trips through Alaska

With gas prices steadily rising, tourists weigh fun against expense

Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2008

ANCHORAGE - In early May, Bob and Sandy Wilson and their two cats began a long-awaited road trip from North Carolina to Alaska.

The Wilsons discovered right away that their 40-foot, diesel-powered luxury motor home wasn't the only thing rambling north.

In just about every town they arrived in, from Kansas to Canada, diesel prices inched up.

On a recent overcast morning in Anchorage, the Wilsons were comfortably holed up at the Creekwood Inn RV lot, slowly getting ready for a day trip to Girdwood.

The retired couple laughed ruefully at some of the recent questions they've asked themselves.

Is it worth $20 to drive to Talkeetna in the SUV they tow along?

Just how many dollars did that wrong turn on the highway cost?

Dog sled tour or Denali flight trip?

"Gas has just gotten so costly that this will be our last major trip," Sandy Wilson proclaimed.

"Maybe for you," Bob responded, wiggling his eyebrows playfully in her direction.

Tourists aren't the only ones feeling the blues on the highway.

Alaskans who enjoy spending the summer driving back and forth from fishing spots and other summer hangouts in their RVs say they are hurting too.

Some said they have converted their RVs into lawn ornaments or have put them up for sale.

Others are making lifestyle trade-offs - such as quitting smoking or not going out to dinner - to preserve their more expensive weekend trips.

"What I found out was that when I slowed down (to 53 mph), my gas mileage increased by about 20 percent," said Anchorage resident Judd Peterson, who drives a 30-foot motor home to the Kenai Peninsula every weekend to fish.

"A lot of other RVs and cars are doing the same thing," he said, stressing that he pulls to the side of the road if he backs up traffic.

This summer, for the first time, Peterson also began charging his friends who travel with him to the Kenai for the price of the gas.

As a result, "my expenses have actually gone down (from last year)," he said.

Mike Laflamme said his family isn't leaving Anchorage much at all this summer.

Usually, Laflamme, his wife and their three kids drive their 24-foot Ford Coachman to Kenai for the Memorial Day weekend. They didn't do it this year.

"It would have cost $400 in gas," he said.

Recently, Laflamme figured out he could reduce their recreational gas costs by parking the Coachman on their waterfront lot at Big Lake all summer.

"We'll probably keep it there over the winter too," Laflamme said.

RV campgrounds from Anchorage to the Alaska-Canada border report that their business is off 10 to 20 percent this summer.

Alaska Highway traffic counts at the border show June crossings were down 14 percent from last June.

Tips are down and vacancies are up, campground operators say. But they are more worried about next summer.

"Next year is going to be scary," said Buck Bailey, who manages the Ship Creek RV Park on Ingra Street.

The demographics of RV travelers seem to be changing too, he and other operators said.

More people are renting RVs rather than driving them to Alaska, and Europeans are showing up in bigger numbers, they said.

Mike Larson, who operates Scottie Creek Services, an RV and fuel/liquor stop on the Alaska Highway about four miles from the Canadian border, worries that he might have to shut down early this year.

"We're on generators out here. ... I'm running the smallest generator I can get. The RV park business is down to only a couple (rigs) per night versus 10 or 15 per night," he said.

Some RV travelers hardly seem to blink at the fuel prices.

Randy and Jean Bowman of Racine, Wis., claimed a spot at the Ship Creek RV campground in Anchorage on Wednesday, primed for sightseeing, shopping and dining on fresh seafood.

So far, the Bowmans are optimistic they won't blow their trip budget: They generously calculated driving 10,000 miles for as much as $5 per gallon.

"You only live once," said Randy Bowman, who bought their 25-foot Aerolite in March. He retired in June.

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