Thanksgiving travel making comeback from recession dip

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More Americans are expected to travel this year to celebrate Thanksgiving, according to reports from multiple travel associations.

The number of cars on the highway, airline passengers, and train and bus passengers are all expected to increase during the most heavily trafficked days on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday afterward. Thanksgiving this year falls on Nov. 28.

“For the last few years, travel has been making a comeback at Thanksgiving, yet it’s still not fully recovered to what is used to be,” said AAA spokesman John Townsend.

As usual for Thanksgiving, driving will be the most popular form of travel this year, according to AAA, which will release its travel projections later this month. According to AAA, the travel association, trips by car accounted for nearly 90 percent of all Thanksgiving travel in 2012. More than 39 million people drove an average of 588 miles to their holiday destinations.

Driving has steadily increased from a low of 32 million in 2008 at the height of the recession. AAA expects that trend to continue, but does not anticipate it will return to the glory days of 2005, when nearly 50 million people drove for Thanksgiving.

Most families get less time off for Thanksgiving than Christmas, so vacationers tend to stay relatively close to home. Because they aren’t going all the way across the country, driving is more affordable than flying for most families.

Thanksgiving is more family-focused than most of the other holidays,” Mr. Townsend said. “There are people who are locked into going by car. If you have a family of four or five, it’s too expensive to fly and you’re not going to leave the kids at home, so people tend to drive.”

Flying is the second-most popular form of travel during Thanksgiving, according to AAA, but it has decreased steadily over the last three years.

In 2012, 3.1 million passengers flew, down slightly from the 3.2 million who flew in 2011, and the 3.3 million who flew in 2010. However, the airline industry’s travel association projects it will pick back up this year.

The trade association Airlines for America projects that 25 million passengers will fly for Thanksgiving. That’s an increase of 1.5 percent from last year, or more than an additional 31,000 travelers per day.

Airlines for America’s projections are larger than AAA‘s, because the airline group measures travel during a 12-day period around Thanksgiving from Friday, Nov. 22 through Tuesday, Dec. 3, while AAA only measures the days immediately surrounding Thanksgiving.

“The good news for customers is that air travel costs less in real dollars today than in 2000, airlines are delivering strong on-time and baggage performance,” said John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist at Airlines for America.

Meanwhile, others forms of travel such as railway and bus may also notice a slight uptick in passengers. In 2012, 1.2 million people took other forms of transportation to their Thanksgiving destinations, according to AAA. Amtrak is adding trains and routes to keep up with the increased demand.

“When you go to your Thanksgiving destination by a train or a bus, transportation becomes part of the trip, not a means to an end,” said AAA’s Carrie Norman.

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