Online Staff Report
HELENA, Mont. — AAA forecasts 42.5 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a 4 percent increase from the 40.9 million people who traveled one year ago.
This is the first significant increase in any holiday travel this year. The Thanksgiving holiday travel period is defined as Wednesday, Nov. 23 to Sunday, Nov. 27.
“Driving AAA’s projected increase in the number of Thanksgiving travelers is pent-up demand from Americans who may have foregone holiday travel the last three years,” said Tara Hanley, AAA spokesman. “Despite higher fuel prices and continued economic uncertainty, more Americans are expected to choose family and friends over frugality.
“This is the first significant increase in any holiday travel this year,” Hanley added. “Memorial Day travel was statistically flat, while Independence Day and Labor Day travel experienced decreases of 2.5 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively.”
Growth levels are not high enough to support a quick return to pre-recession levels of holiday travel. Rather, a slow climb back is expected from 2008, which was a decade-low year for Thanksgiving travel with only 37.8 million Americans taking a trip.
Automobile travel increases 4 percent, remains dominant mode of transportation
Approximately 38.2 million people (90 percent of holiday travelers) plan to take to the nation’s roadways this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a 4 percent increase compared to Thanksgiving 2010 when auto travelers totaled 36.8 million.
Automobile travel remains the preferred choice of transportation for holiday travelers as it is often more affordable, convenient and flexible.
The current national average price for regular unleaded gasoline is approximately $3.39 per gallon, about 50 cents more than one year ago. However, the national average price is about 59 cents less than this year’s peak price of $3.98 May 5.
Number of air travelers expected to increase, despite higher airfares
Almost 3.4 million leisure travelers (8 percent of holiday travelers) will fly during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a 1.8 percent increase from 2010. Fuel costs, combined with steady air travel demand and capacity cuts, have resulted in rising airfares over the past year.
According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index, Thanksgiving airfares are expected to be 20 percent higher than last year, with an average lowest round-trip rate of $212 for the top 40 U.S. air routes.
The combination of higher fares and lower availability of seats is expected to limit air travel growth this holiday to less than half of total traveler growth.
2 percent of travelers expected to select other modes of transportation
Other modes of travel (bus, trains, watercraft, multi-modal travel) will make up the remaining 2 percent of the total person-trips, with just more than 900,000 people expected to travel by these modes, 14.7 percent higher than in 2010.
Travel via these modes has declined significantly since 2008 and remains well below historical averages, so there is stronger pent-up demand from consumers that travel using these modes.
In addition, economic conditions are dictating that those who otherwise might travel by air or automobile are traveling by alternative modes of travel.
Travelers to experience increases in hotel rates, car rental rates decrease
Hotel rates for AAA Three Diamond or mid-range lodgings are expected to increase 6 percent from one year ago with travelers spending an average of $145 per night compared to $136 last year.
Travelers planning to stay at AAA Two Diamond hotels can expect to pay 7 percent more at an average cost of $103 per night.
Weekend daily car rental rates will average $37, an 11 percent decrease from one year ago.
Travelers stay closer to home as average distance decreases; median spending increases
According to a survey of traveler intentions, the average distance traveled by Americans during the Thanksgiving holiday is expected to be 706 miles, which is a decline of 13.5 percent from last year when travelers planned to log an average of 816 miles.
Median spending is expected to be $554, which is a 12 percent increase from $495 last year. However, Thanksgiving holiday travel is typically less expensive than other travel holidays because of the emphasis on the Thanksgiving meal and gathering of friends and family.
Fuel and transportation costs combine to consume the largest share of holiday spending (33 percent), followed by shopping (18 percent) and food and beverages (18 percent). Other expenditures include accommodations (16 percent), entertainment and recreation (12 percent), and other costs (3 percent).
60 percent of travelers report no economic impact on travel plans
Despite high levels of concern seen in some consumer confidence and consumer comfort surveys, intending travelers seem comfortable with the state of the economy with respect to their travel plans.
Sixty percent of intending travelers feel the economy has either no impact on their travel plans or that they feel like things have improved for them. The remaining 40 percent do state an intention to scale back travel plans but in light of the current economic conditions, this is still a positive sign for the industry and an additional reminder of just how important traveling is to the American people.
AAA’s projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Global Insight. The Boston-based economic research and consulting firm teamed with AAA in 2009 to jointly analyze travel trends during the major holidays. AAA has been reporting on holiday travel trends for more than two decades. The complete AAA / IHS Global Insight 2011 Labor Day Holiday Travel Forecast can be found at NewsRoom.AAA.com.