91.9 million expected to travel during holidays

Online Staff Report

HELENA, Mont. — AAA forecasts 91.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the 2011-12 year-end holiday travel season, a 1.4 percent increase over the 90.7 million people who traveled one year ago.

This year’s expected year-end holiday travel volume is the second highest in the past decade and represents 30 percent of the total U.S. population.

The 11-day year-end holiday period is the longest holiday travel season of the year, affording many more Americans time to visit family or take vacations. AAA defines the year-end holiday travel season as Friday, Dec. 23, to Monday, Jan. 2, 2012.

It’s a positive sign for the travel industry that so many Americans are planning to travel this holiday season, collectively contributing to the second-highest year-end holiday travel volume in the past 10 years,” said Tara Hanley, AAA spokesman. “As our lives get busier, it is so important to create opportunities for the rest and rejuvenation that result from vacation travel and connecting with family and friends, especially during the holidays.”

Economic impact on travel

Economic improvements are continuing at a very slow pace, and are the primary factors expected to drive this year’s modest increase in expected year-end holiday travel. While pent-up demand was projected to inspire significant Thanksgiving holiday travel growth this year, holiday travel at the end of the year is less cyclical, so pent-up demand has less effect.

Fifty-nine percent of intending travelers feel the economy has either no impact on their travel plans or they feel like things have improved for them. The remaining 41 percent state an intention to scale back travel plans as a result of economic concerns. Given current economic conditions, a majority of travelers reporting no economic impact on their travel plans is a positive sign for the travel industry and another reminder of just how important traveling is to Americans.

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 2011-12 Year-End Holiday Travel Forecast can be found at NewsRoom.AAA.com.

Automobile is top transportation choice, increases 2.1 percent

Approximately 83.6 million people (91 percent of holiday travelers) plan to take to the nation’s roadways this year-end holiday travel season, a 2.1 percent increase compared to 2010-11, when the number of auto travelers totaled 81.9 million. This year’s projected automobile travel volume is the second-highest in the past decade and only 100,000 less than the 2006-07 auto travel peak of 83.7 million. Automobile travel remains the preferred choice of transportation for 2011-12 year-end holiday travelers, as nearly 27 percent of the total U.S. population will hit the road.

The current national average price for regular unleaded gasoline is approximately $3.21 per gallon, about 23 cents more than one year ago. However, the national average price is about 77 cents less than this year’s peak price of $3.98 on May 5.

Air travel down nearly 10 percent

About 5.4 million leisure travelers (6 percent of holiday travelers) will fly during the year-end holiday travel period, a 9.7 percent decrease from 2010-11. This year’s air travel volume is the seventh-lowest in the past 10 years as nearly 2 million fewer year-end holiday travelers are expected to fly than did during the decade’s air travel peak in 2002-03. Jet fuel costs and capacity cuts continue to impact holiday air travel. According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index, year-end holiday airfares are expected to be 21 percent higher than last year, with an average lowest round-trip rate of $210 for the top 40 U.S. air routes. This is the highest year-end holiday average airfare in the past five years.

Train, bus, other modes of travel increase 4.2 percent

Other modes of travel (bus, trains, watercraft, multi-modal travel) will make up the remaining 3 percent of the total person-trips, with 2.9 million people expected to travel by these modes, 4.2 percent higher than 2010-11. Economic conditions are dictating that some Americans who otherwise might travel by air or automobile are traveling by these alternative modes of transportation.

Hotel rates increase; car rental rates decrease

According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index, hotel rates for AAA Three Diamond or mid-range lodgings are expected to increase a modest 1 percent from last year with travelers spending an average of $126 per night compared to $125 one year ago. Daily car rental rates are $40 on average, a 21 percent decrease from one year ago and the lowest seen in the past five years.

Travel distance decreases; median spending increases

According to a survey of traveler intentions, the average distance traveled by Americans during the year-end holiday travel season is expected to be 726 miles, a decline from 2010-11 when travelers planned to log an average of 1,052 miles. Propelling the reduction in expected travel miles is the 9.7 percent decline in air travel and indications that many air travelers are choosing shorter-distance flights. Median spending is expected to be $718, which is a 3 percent increase from $694 last year.

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