Katy Epler and her husband will pile in the car with their son and daughter next month and drive to the Black Hills.
It’ll be the Eplers’ first true family vacation in a long time. Mount Rushmore, a steam train ride, a swim in some hot springs and a cave tour are on the itinerary — maybe also a chance to pan for gold.
“We have been on a pretty strict budget for a while, and so it just wasn’t something that was in our budget, and now it is,” said Katy Epler, who works at a museum. “Our situation is a little bit more stable, and now we feel like we can finally go have some fun.”
Thanks to low gas prices and a stable economy, the travel industry is gearing up for a brisk summer. AAA projects 37.2 million people will travel for Memorial Day weekend, the highest number in a decade.
A strong weekend would be welcome for the tourism industry in Minnesota and across the country. Last year the number of people who traveled for Memorial Day weekend was no higher than the previous year, said Jamie Korf, a spokeswoman for AAA Minneapolis.
“The economy has been bouncing back and accelerating, and that’s kind of the main driver,” Korf said. “It all comes back to lower gas prices and solid employment reports and overall economic stability, and that improves the consumer mood.”
Hotel owners in Minnesota generally expect a better 2015 than 2014, according to a survey from Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism promotion office. About 53 percent of respondents expect summer revenue to be up, and 45 percent predict increased occupancy.
As Memorial Day kicks off the busy season up in Ely, Minn., Marty Chinander said he’s not getting too up or down about his summer prospects. Reservations for his four cabins, six RV spots and six tent camping sites have been coming in, but not like 15 years ago.
“It looks like an average summer to me,” he said. “I don’t expect a bad year.”
That’s the general consensus in Ely, said Chinander, who also runs a cafe at his resort.
“They still come to Ely, but they don’t eat in our restaurant as much as in other years,” he said. “But they still seem to come.”
The largest traditional travel agency in North America, Travel Leaders Group in Plymouth, said overall bookings are up compared with a year ago.
“We are definitely experiencing a busier travel season for summer — especially for Europe, and oddly enough Europe at the last minute,” said Bonnie Lee, at Travel Leaders in Albertville, Minn.
While Europe appears to be a popular destination this summer, it isn’t because of the strong dollar. More people surveyed by Travel Leaders — 6.7 percent — said they didn’t realize the dollar had strengthened than said they’re planning an international trip specifically because of the favorable currency conditions — 4 percent.
Most travel for Memorial Day — and for the summer — will be road trips. Of the 37 million traveling this weekend, 33 million are driving, according to AAA, a 5.3 percent increase over Memorial Day in 2014.
Nate Pentz and his wife had been thinking for years about a trip to Banff National Park in Alberta. This year, it’s happening.
The couple, who live in north Minneapolis, plan to pack their Prius full of camping gear and drive to Winnipeg to catch two games at the Women’s World Cup, then trek 13 hours across the prairie to the Canadian Rockies.
“We figured, well, that works perfectly,” said Pentz, a soccer fan. “We’ve been wanting to go to Banff for a long time.”
After camping in Banff they will visit Glacier National Park in Montana, then drive home to Minnesota.
Pentz has never been a close tracker of gas prices, but the fact that gas costs about a dollar less than a year ago is a nice bonus.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he said.
For Katy Epler, a trip to the Black Hills has been on the agenda for years. She visited Mount Rushmore when she was in college, and it occurred to her then that she wanted to visit again when she had a family.
They’ll spend four nights in the Black Hills, and are keeping costs down by renting a place to stay through Vacation Rental By Owner, vrbo.com.
“We can make dinner a couple times and not have to go out for a meal,” she said.
The Eplers, who live in Richfield, have been preparing for the trip by each choosing an activity they can’t miss.
Daughter Josie, 8, picked the train ride; Will, 10, picked the hot springs, and Rob, a schoolteacher, picked a cave tour.
“Every Minnesotan is supposed to go to the Black Hills,” Katy Epler said. “It seems like one of those rites of passage for kids of a certain age.”