- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Despite the recent free fall in gas prices, Americans are expected to cut back on their holiday travel this Thanksgiving for the first time in six years.

AAA MidAtlantic predicts 41 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving this year, down from 41.6 million last year, a 1.4 percent decline that marks the first drop since 2002.

“We expect fewer people to be going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house this year and we believe this is a reflection of the overall state of the economy,” said John Townsend, AAA MidAtlantic public relations manager. “The drop in gas prices is not enough to offset other economic concerns and factors.”

Trains and buses gained the most in popularity this year. Approximately 3.26 million Americans are expected to hop on the rails and buses, a 5.8 percent increase from last year.

However, that increase will not be not enough to outweigh the decline in the numbers of people driving and flying. Only 4.54 million people will be taking to the skies during the Nov. 21-Dec. 2 holiday period, a drop of 7.2 percent from last year’s 4.89 million.

Mr. Townsend attributed that decline mainly to an increase in fares as well as extra baggage fees. Car rental fees could also be a hassle for people traveling by air; AAA reports car rental prices are up 4 percent from last year.

Airlines are trying to lure disgruntled fliers back by lowering their fares. The rapidly changing fare scenario has made it difficult for AAA to predict what impact last-minute travel decisions will have on passenger totals.

“Travel is down for Thanksgiving and there are fewer seats and fewer flights, but airlines want to fill every seat with paying customers,” Mr. Townsend said. “The thing that trumps everything is family ties. If you have strong family and friendships, you might get an impulse to go while you can.”

David Castelvecter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, doubts many last-minute buyers will succeed in finding cheap seats on holiday flights.

“Most people who travel over Thanksgiving are advanced planners who know where they’re going and who they’re going to see,” Mr. Castelvecter said. “Airplanes from November 21 [to] December 2 are already 80 percent full, so there aren’t many options left out there.”

Since AAA completed its travel polling two weeks ago, gas prices have dropped by 30 cents to 40 cents a gallon. The national average price for a gallon of self-serve regular was $1.87 on Tuesday, according to gasbuddy.com.

Thanksgiving will mark the fourth-consecutive major holiday this year to see a decline in travel, AAA confirmed. Soaring gas prices discouraged travel on Memorial Day, Labor Day and the Fourth of July, but plunging pump prices are encouraging motorists this Thanksgiving.

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