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The summer road trip isn’t the same when gas costs $2 a liter

Wayne Gass was planning a scenic road trip for the summer: drive along the Gaspé Peninsula, hit the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, then loop back up to Prince Edward Island.

But with gas now costing upwards of $2 a liter in the Greater Montreal municipality of Vaudreuil-Dorion where he lives, Gass says he’ll be sticking closer to home — perhaps taking shorter trips to Ottawa or Mont-Tremblant, Que., instead.

“Nothing on a large scale of going down the East Coast, which I’m going to miss because I love going down there. It’s beautiful country.”

Gass is one of many Canadians who may be rethinking their road travel plans as gas prices hit new highs across the country, topping $2 a liter in several places.

Those record prices, plus rising costs for everything from food to housing, are adding extra uncertainty to the post-pandemic bounceback that the travel industry was banking on.

“What might have been a terrific year [for travel] is going to be a little more subdued than what we might have hoped for,” said Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada.

A new report from the Conference Board says there is huge pent-up demand for travel after two years of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it notes that higher prices for gas and other goods will be a “significant deterrent” to travel .

And although more Canadians are likely to take road trips this year, they probably won’t be “bucket list” trips like Gass was planning.

Changing plans as gas prices rise

Linda Schaeffer and her husband, Don, changed their August vacation plans when they realized it would be much cheaper to fly from Calgary to Halifax and rent a car there so they could visit family, rather than drive across the country, as planned.

“We figured that with the price of gas, by the time we drive down there, accommodation and food and whatever else we want to do on our way … it was going to cost us about $10,000 to $15,000. That’s crazy,” Schaeffer said.

“It’s way too much money to go across Canada.”

Linda and Don Schaeffer were planning to drive from Calgary to Halifax this summer to visit family, but with gas prices climbing, they’ve decided to fly and rent a car at their destination. (Submitted by Linda Schaeffer)

Instead of the month-long road trip they had planned, the couple will now be away for two weeks, using airline points and credit card rewards to cover most of the cost of their flights and a rental car in Halifax.

“We’re going to have to buy gas to drive around, but it’s going to be a lot less than driving across Canada,” she said.

But flying might not be a cheaper option for everyone — especially for those paying with cash instead of reward miles, warns Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at fuel price comparison website GasBuddy.

“Airline ticket prices have also gone up with the jump in the price of jet fuel, so that may not be a sure bet either.”

Downsizing the car and the cost

Meanwhile, Christophe Glenard and his girlfriend, Daria Senft, saved gas money on their recent road trip from Montreal to Saskatchewan by downsizing their vehicle.

They had made the same journey to visit friends in 2018, driving a converted van and sleeping on a mattress in the back. At the time, gas prices were about $1.30 a liter, and they spent $650 on gas for the round trip.

This year, the couple bought a cheap second-hand car — and its better fuel efficiency meant they had money left over to stay in motels during their journey.

“We thought it would be more expensive, but it turns out with the prices that we were paying on gas, it was actually cheaper to go with a small car and the motels,” Glenard said.

Christophe Glenard, Daria Senft and their travel companions, Asparagus and Mojo, during their round-trip drive from Montreal to Saskatchewan. They downsized their vehicle to save gas. (Submitted by Daria Senft)

I have added that they plan to sell their car before moving overseas next month, so they will recover most of its cost.

De Haan said he expects many travelers will look for other ways to cut costs during their trip, “whether it’s by stopping at fast food instead of a casual restaurant or trying to skimp on hotel expenses — or even roughing it and trying to camp.”

Better planning can save gas money

The Canadian Automobile Association says it’s still getting a lot of calls from people intending to take summer road trips, but they’re doing a better job of planning than they might have in the past, said Teresa De Felice, assistant vice-president of government and community relations at CAA South Central Ontario.

That includes signing up for loyalty programs that offer gas discounts, as well as being more mindful about driving behaviours, such as reducing speed on highways to boost fuel economy.

Vehicles head along Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway on May 6. Reducing highway speed is one way to boost a car’s fuel economy, the Canadian Automobile Association says. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

“I think everyone’s concerned about the price of gas…. People are really trying to find ways, small ways, that they can impact both their mileage and [what they] spend, but not at the point of sacrificing some of the plans that they had.”

De Haan said motorists who shop around for gas could save up to 10 cents a liter — and if they’re traveling between provinces, they should be aware that prices could be significantly higher or lower, depending on where they go.

And, he said, travel budgets should factor in the potential for gas prices to go even higher in the months ahead.

“It could take a period of beyond a year, maybe even two, for gas prices to go back down to what we’d consider normal.”

Tips for reducing road trip gas costs

  • Plan your trip to avoid rush-hour travel and extra stops.
  • Take your vehicle in for a tune-up before setting out on a road trip.
  • Shop around for lower gas prices.
  • Loyalty programs, credit cards and other memberships can get you discounts.
  • Reducing highway speeds can increase fuel economy, as can avoiding jumpy starts, rapid acceleration and hard braking.
  • Avoid excessive idling, including during rest stops.
  • Wind down windows instead of blasting the air conditioning, when possible.
  • Remove excess weight, such as bike and ski racks, from your vehicle.

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