Millions of travelers breathed a sigh of relief when gasoline prices fell in the weeks leading up to the heavily traveled Memorial Day weekend.
Now, a touch of good news for those already daydreaming about summer road trips: Prices could fall even more in the weeks ahead, and even if they do rise in July and August, they are likely to remain well below the $4 or $5 per gallon that some observers had feared.
"Gas prices are still historically high, but it's starting to feel cheap by comparison to where we were just months ago," said Jason Toews, co-founder of GasBuddy.com, which tracks prices across the country.
Toews noted that the national average price for a gallon of unleaded gas peaked in early April at $3.91. On Monday, the average had fallen to $3.64, a drop of nearly 7 percent in a matter of weeks, according to AAA.
Toews and other analysts said they expect that average price to continue falling into June, possibly by as much as 10 cents per gallon, before rising again later in the summer.
Of course, reality could throw a wrench into such predictions.
"You have a couple of wild cards in the middle of the summer" that could trigger significant price fluctuations, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service. Among them: economic instability and a looming election in Greece, fears of a recession in Europe, the arrival of hurricane season, and tensions over sanctions against Iran, which has threatened to disrupt Middle East oil supplies.
In addition, while the national average might hold steady or even fall over the next month, gas prices can vary widely from state to state and region to region. Some Western states such as Washington, Oregon and California have experienced sharp increases in gas prices recently, in part because of various supply problems and a fire that temporarily shut down one large refinery. In Tacoma, Wash., for example, the average price is $4.30 per gallon, 69 cents above the national average.
Despite the relief of many drivers as prices have fallen in recent weeks, that feeling is largely a matter of perception. Gas prices continue to put a significant dent in the wallets of many Americans. But many drivers expected the situation to be worse right now, so seeing prices linger below the $4 mark seems like a victory, however small.
"You're about as miserable as you were last year, but you were prepared to be much more miserable," Kloza said. "It's like you're prepared for a 100-degree day and you got 90 degrees. It's still uncomfortable; it still crimps consumer spending. But it's not quite the crisis that some people were calling for."