- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2011

Signs of a rebounding economy are few, but America’s top travel group saw some last week in its annual Thanksgiving holiday travel report.

AAA reported that more Americans and Washingtonians will be traveling for Turkey Day and spending more money than in recent years. With statistics showing shrinking unemployment and rises in both personal income and real disposable income, the economy is picking up and the travel numbers are reflecting that.

“The increase in holiday travelers can be attributed to a … strengthening economy,” the company said, while cautioning that the uptick was “slight.”

Americans are expected to spend more money during this year’s Thanksgiving holiday, measured from Wednesday to the subsequent Sunday, AAA said. The median spending will be $554, a 12 percent increase from last year’s $495. Fuel and transportation costs will make up 33 percent of spending, shopping will account for 18 percent, and food and beverages will account for 18 percent.

“After being stuck at home for three years, stressed and strained by their financial woes, Washington area residents are finally leaving the city to spend time with their family and friends this upcoming holiday,” according to AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II. “Theres still a bit of economic uncertainty lurking in the minds of travelers, but those who have made the decision to get away are determined and feel comfortable about increasing their travel budgets.”

The number of holiday air travelers also will rise slightly this year, the AAA predicts, but passengers will still be subject to security measures that make hitting the highway for Thanksgiving travel the "preferred choice." (Associated Press)
The number of holiday air travelers also will rise slightly this year, ... more >

Washingtonians will help make this coming Thursday the Thanksgiving with the heaviest travel in four years, according to AAA forecasters.

About 42.5 million Americans will take to the road and the air this year, a pickup of about 4 percent over last year, with an estimated 1.05 million coming from the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region, the automotive and travel group said.

After several years of austerity based on fears about the economy, Americans are ready to return to normal holiday travel habits, Mr. Townsend said.

“This year, it is all about family, friends, food and giving thanks for our bounty and blessings,” Mr. Townsend said last week. “That’s why we are projecting and seeing a big increase in the number of Thanksgiving travelers, as many Americans are planning to leave town, after having foregone holiday travel over the past three years. As consumers weigh the fear of economic uncertainty and the desire to spend more quality time with their loved ones this holiday, more Americans are expected to choose family and friends over frugality.”

Americans, however, won’t go quite as far as last year. They are expected to travel 706 miles, a 13.5 percent decline from last year’s 816 miles.

Automobile travel remains the “dominant mode of transportation.” This year, it will account for 38.2 million Americans and just under 1 million Washingtonians, at least 90 percent of holiday travelers. It’s the “preferred choice” because it’s “more affordable, convenient and flexible,” AAA explained.

“Despite an increase compared to last year, the cost of fuel is not expected to significantly influence travel this Thanksgiving,” Mr. Townsend explained. “The fact that gas prices, which reached a 2011 peak in May, are 60 cents higher than they were last year will be slightly offset by the recent trend of declining prices. The price for regular unleaded gasoline in the Washington metro area has averaged $3.41 per gallon in the past week, more than 50 cents higher than the $2.87 area travelers paid one year ago.”

The number of air travelers is also on the rise. Nationwide, nearly 3.4 million people will fly, accounting for 8 percent of holiday travelers, with about 75,000 coming from the Washington area. The national figure is an increase of less than 2 percent from last year.

This comes despite higher airfares, which will slow growth. The cost of flying is expected to increase 20 percent, and the average lowest round-trip rate for the top 40 U.S. markets will be $212.

“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,” AAA reported.

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