Pastel-colored dresses for the girls and dark suits for the boys were in this year at Oakland Mills High School's prom. Renting a stretch limousine was out.
With surging gas prices driving up the cost of limousine rental, many teenagers in the Baltimore region are steering away from the prom tradition of booking a luxury ride for their big night out. They are opting instead for some far less glamorous alternatives, such as renting a bus or - gulp - using the family car.
"The limo was the same exact amount for the prom ticket," said Iman Smith, 18, a senior at the Howard County school.
Smith piled into a rented bus Saturday with 12 of her friends for $33 each, compared with pitching in $60 per person for limousine rental.
"Think about it. A limo, prom dress and ticket would be ridiculously expensive," she said.
Limousine companies in the area say they are being hit hard during what is traditionally their busiest season.
"We've got half of what we had last year," Sharon Rogers, owner of Absolute Limousines of Edgewater, said of spring bookings. "We still have lots of openings."
Many operators have added surcharges in response to higher gasoline prices, which reached an average of $3.63 per gallon for regular unleaded in Maryland, AAA Mid-Atlantic reported yesterday. Rogers raised rates $35, bringing the cost of renting a limo to $885 for eight hours.
"The gas prices definitely are not helping us," she said. "It is working against us. We are trying not to raise the prices [again]. But the industry is suffering. It's not too far off."
Richard Kane, owner of International Limousine Service in Washington and president of the National Limousine Association, said operators suffered first-quarter losses of 10 percent to 30 percent.
Rate increases implemented in response to higher fuel costs range from 8 percent to 20 percent, Kane said.
"It is unfortunate, but we have to pass the costs on," said Kane, 38, who has tacked on a 13.5 percent surcharge.
Mike Vallard, owner of Bel Air-based Higher Quality Limousines, is among those who decided against raising prices, resigning himself to the possibility of simply breaking even. Vallard, who is president of the Maryland Limousine Association, charges $800 for six hours and $1,000 for eight hours.
Kane said he is optimistic that the prom season will turn out to be a success for limo companies. Many parents favor the anti-alcohol policies followed by most operators and view the carpooling aspect of renting a limousine as an efficiency that is good for the environment, he said.
"They've got to get limos," Kane said.
Limousine companies are undertaking other cost-control measures. Leaving the engine idling outside an event is a thing of the past. And some drivers carpool to grab a bite to eat while waiting for the prom to end. Vallard sometimes delivers dinner to his drivers.
Many companies limit the number of stops on prom night, Rogers said. But they haven't gone completely utilitarian. Vallard encourages his drivers to take the scenic route for prom trips.
"We take the back roads," he said. "We're not over-glorified taxis."
The organizers of the Oakland Mills event primarily had safety in mind when they arranged for two buses to take students to the prom at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and to the Columbia Gym in Clarksville for an after-prom party. But it soon become clear that economics played a large role.
Though interest among students for the $10 bus tickets was lukewarm early on, a rush of takers in the last days before the prom led organizers to line up a third bus.
"All of the kids thought it was a crazy idea, but when they started looking at the costs - and gas was one of them - the kids started to buy into the PTA plan," said Vincent James, a teacher in the gifted and talented program at Oakland Mills.
Other students rode a different kind of bus. Smith and her friends rented a "party" bus, which they described as a smaller version of a Howard County transit bus. It turned out to be hipper than they thought.
"I thought it was more fun," Smith said. "It was cooler."
Other Oakland Mills students looked no further than their driveway to solve their transportation problem. Along with her boyfriend and another couple, Stephanie Gianni hopped into her mother's Hummer. The popular SUV rates highly as an attention-getting ride, but Gianni enjoyed an added feature that was unavailable from limousine operators.
"My mom bought the gas," the 17-year-old junior said.