$3 Gas, Here We Come

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Gas prices, once all but guaranteed to hit record highs this summer, are now forecast to keep retreating well into autumn. At the current pace, by Thanksgiving if not sooner the national average should dip under $3 per gallon—roughly $1 cheaper than the 2012 high registered in early April.

Several Southern states are leading the race downward to the $3 marker. As of Friday, the national average stood at $3.45 for a gallon of regular, and Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas were all averaging at or below $3.30 per gallon. South Carolina was cheapest of all ($3.04), with roughly one-third of the state’s gas stations already offering a gallon at a price that starts with a 2.

Consumer demand for gasoline has been low for months, but it’s only been in recent months, when production has picked up, that declining gas prices have reflected the lull in demand.

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Now, after gas prices have dropped nationally by 50¢ in less than three months, forecasters quoted by USA Today anticipate another dip of 50¢ or so by the time Christmas shopping season rolls around:

“The market is suggesting gas below $3 by Halloween, and certainly by Thanksgiving,” says Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service.

In the near future, surprisingly cheap gas prices (relatively speaking) are expected to provide an added reason to hit the road for the Fourth of July holidays. News sources in , Florida, Michigan, and elsewhere have noted AAA’s estimates indicating that 42.3 million Americans are planning on traveling at least 50 miles away from home to celebrate Independence Day. That’s a 5% increase from last year, and it ties the record high over the past decade, set in 2007, before the economic collapse hit in full force.

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This year, improving consumer confidence, lower gas prices, and the fact that the Fourth falls on a Wednesday are being cited as reasons why more people are hitting the road. With the official holiday on a Wednesday, travelers have the option of taking a long weekend before or after the Fourth—or just making the whole week a vacation.

Earlier in the spring, when gas prices were higher, a Discover Financial Services survey (covered in a BankRate.com post) noted that 53% of Americans were altering their spending and vacation plans due to the cost of fuel. More recently, though, only 46% of Americans said gas prices were causing them to change summer plans.

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One final reason why a road trip may be growing more appealing this summer: While the cost of driving is getting cheaper and cheaper, the price of flights is heading in the opposite direction.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.