Holiday travel is often seen as a barometer for the state of the economy and, if this Thanksgiving’s numbers are any indication, things are looking up … slightly.
AAA predicts that 43.6 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home this year, an increase of 0.7 percent over last year and the fourth consecutive year of growth in the number of holiday travelers since the recession cut numbers by 25 percent in 2008.
“Thanksgiving travel hit a decade low in 2008 when only 37.8 million Americans traveled,” said AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet. “Since that year we have seen a steady increase in the number of travelers taking to the roads and skies for the holiday. Americans continue to find ways to economize their budgets so they can gather around the holiday table to carve the turkey.”
The automobile agency defines the Thanksgiving holiday travel period as Wednesday, Nov. 21, to Sunday, Nov. 25. Some 45 percent of travelers will head out the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, while 36 percent will return the following Sunday, making those the busiest days for travel. Another 25 percent expect to return home on Monday, Nov. 26.
Gas prices should drop to between $3.25 and $3.40 a gallon, making them about equal to last year’s average of $3.32, which was the most expensive average price ever for Thanksgiving. Despite this, 90 percent of travelers are expected to hit the road in an automobile this year, a 0.6 percent increase over last year.
Gas rationing ended in New Jersey on Tuesday, but it remains in place in New York City and portions of Long Island, and it’s unclear what impact this and other storm-related issues will have.
“While we do not yet know the full impact that Hurricane Sandy will have on travel from the Mid-Atlantic region, we do know that the impact for many Americans in that region is substantial,” Darbelnet said.
AAA’s projections, based on research by IHS Global Insight, were done before Sandy barreled into the East Coast, causing upwards of $50 billion in damages.
Moreover, the projected number of travelers may be up, but the amount they will spend and the miles they will travel are down, in part, because AAA believes air travel will decrease by 1.7 percent as just 3.14 million holiday travelers are expected to take to the skies.
According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index, the average lowest round-trip rate is down 11 percent from last year to $188 for the top 40 U.S. air routes. The index also finds that rates at AAA Three Diamond lodgings are down 1 percent, at $143 per night, while rates at Two Diamond hotels are up 1 percent, to $104. Car rental rates, meanwhile, are up 27 percent, to $47, compared to just $37 last year.
These findings differ slightly from other surveys on Thanksgiving travel.
Industry trade group Airlines for America projected an increase of about 150,000 fliers this year, though it uses a 12-day travel period, and a Travelocity survey found that airfares were not down but up by nearly 9 percent.