Slow start to driving season

Kicking back at home this holiday weekend, the traditional start of the driving vacation season? You're not alone. For the first time in a decade, AAA projected a decrease in travel for the Memorial Day weekend. The organization estimated that 37.87 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this holiday, a decrease of nearly 360,000 travelers from last year. That mere 1 percent decline may mark a significant shift. "Perhaps we have met our breaking point" in terms of gas prices, said Dawn Duffy, spokeswoman for AAA Minneapolis. As of Wednesday, the national average price for a gallon of gas was $3.81; it was $3.21 at the same time last year. In Minnesota, the average price as of Wednesday was $3.69.



A Web wizard for car rentals has an intriguing pitch. Make a rental car reservation. Then go to the site, punch in the rental information, plunk down $14.95 (using your credit card), and wait for an e-mail with a rate guaranteed to be at least $15 cheaper, or your money back. I gave the site a trial on my trip to Denver over this weekend. Alamo had offered me a rate of $125.97 for the three-day compact rental. came back with an $86.04 rate from National, providing the e-coupon I'd need to snag the rate. I rebooked and called National, confirming that I'd saved nearly $40. is currently offering a free trial to new customers.



North is what you make it

Ted McClelland, who hails from Michigan, makes no bones about it. He doesn't particularly care about state, provincial or, for that matter, national boundaries. To him, the North is a state of mind, and it is the Great Lakes region that fuels his imagination. He pays homage to it in "The Third Coast" (Chicago Review Press, $24.95). In spring 2005, he began his almost-10,000-mile journey around the Great Lakes, traveling as far west as Duluth, as far east as Kingston, Ontario, and as far north as an Ojibwe reserve, but never, he emphasizes, losing sight of the lakes themselves. McClelland met all kinds of people, visited "the drunkest city in America" (that would be Milwaukee, in his estimation), participated in a fish boil in Wisconsin's Door County, listened to the Upper Peninsula's Sycamore Smith, the "North Country's Other Great Folk Singer" (take that, Mr. Dylan) and chatted up folks in Prince Edward County, deep in the heart of loyalist Ontario, before ending his journey where it all began, in Chicago.



Bartlett show lives on

The iconic Wisconsin Dells experience, the Tommy Bartlett Show, turns 55 this year. What started with boat races and pyramids of water skiers has evolved to include laser lights, skydivers and hang gliders. "Pirates of Bartlett Bay," featuring ski jumps and flips and acrobats performing 20 feet above the stage, opened Friday. To commemorate the milestone this summer, "Blast From the Past" performances will showcase audience favorites from years gone by, including a stunt team performing on 80-foot sway poles. An alumni ski show, free to the public, is slated for June 21. Ticket prices for other shows start at $8 (; 1-608-254-2525).



The return of Jeff Koons

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago was the first to survey the work of neo-pop artist Jeff Koons, in 1988. Beginning Saturday, the museum will offer another look at the controversial artist. Koons gained prominence in the 1980s by turning contemporary American iconography and popular kitsch, from the Hulk to Hummels, into artworks. "Three Ball 50/50 Tank," with basketballs suspended in formaldehyde in a fish tank, is among his most famous works. The show will run through Sept. 21 (1-312-280-2660;



A bad week for air travelers

First, a recent J.D. Powers & Associates survey ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last in user satisfaction, among 60 of the country's airports. Then came news that American Airlines is charging $15 for most fliers' first checked bag. The news prompted lively conversations on the Star Tribune travel blog Escape Artists. Readers called American Airlines' move "terrible" and "a joke" and suggested that planes will be brimming with carry-ons. One pointed out that when bags carried onboard by passengers don't fit, flight attendants check them. "Will they then have to charge your credit card or take cash from you on the spot? Seems like this hasn't been thought out." A few thought the charge was OK. "What is wrong with a la carte pricing? This is a fantastic idea and will save money for travelers who have no need to check luggage." Join the debate at