Here’s some good news for the travel industry, bad news for you: It’s going to be the busiest holiday season in six years.
AAA’s 2012 holiday forecast shows figures that are within half a million of the previous decade's high mark, seen during the pre-recession 2006-2007 season. North America’s largest motoring and leisure travel association projects that 93.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the year-end festivities, an increase of 1.6 percent over the 91.8 million who traveled last year.
AAA, which defines the year-end holiday travel period as Dec. 22, 2012, to Jan. 1, 2013, believes 90 percent of travelers, or about 84.4 million people, will travel by automobile. This figure represents about 26.7 percent of the total U.S. population, meaning that one in four people will take a road trip this year.
Lower prices at the pump may have something to do with it. AAA estimates the national average price of gasoline will creep downward through the end of the year to between $3.20 and $3.40 a gallon by New Year’s Day. Gas prices have already dropped by about 50 cents a gallon on average since September, but they remain at record highs for this time of year.
The number of travelers in the sky will increase 4.5 percent to 5.6 million this year from 5.4 million in 2011. Because more people will fly, the average distance traveled will also increase to about 726 miles.
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AAA believes lower airfares have encouraged more people to fly, with the lowest roundtrip rates for domestic flights during the year-end holiday at around $203 for the top 40 routes, down by 3 percent.
Approximately 3.3 million people will head out of town by rail, bus or on a cruise ship.
AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet said the year-end holiday season remains one of the least volatile of all travel holidays.
“Americans will not let economic conditions or high gas prices dictate if they go home for the holidays or kick off the New Year with a vacation,” he said, adding that AAA is projecting “an increase in the number of Americans stuffing their stockings with airline tickets and hotel reservations.”
Hotel rates and car rental rates are both up this year, compared with 2011. Prices at higher-end hotels are expected to increase by two percent to an average of $129 per night, while rates at budget options will increase three percent to an average of $95 per night. Daily car rental rates, meanwhile, will rise considerably from $40 last year to an average of $56 this year. All told, the average traveler is expected to spend $759, a six percent increase.
Despite a generally positive outlook, Darbelnet warned of a dark cloud lurking over travelers.
“As we enter the New Year, one unknown for travel is the looming ‘fiscal cliff’ and the resulting uncertainty related to near-term tax and benefit changes,” he said. “Having these items unresolved complicates many travelers’ ability to develop an accurate household budget as they plan for future spending and saving decisions.”
Darbelnet urged Congress and President Barack Obama to work together to resolve the situation quickly “for the good of the nation.”
On Tuesday, U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow urged Congress and the president to solve the country’s budget and deficit woes and avert the fiscal cliff. Budget cuts to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Highway Administration would likely, he said, create a situation where there are fewer security officers to process travelers through busy airports, ongoing flight delays, and fewer updates and repairs to the nation’s highway system.