- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2011

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 hit the roads and airways this year, a pick-up 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, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II.

“This year, it is all about family, friends, food and giving thanks for our bounty and blessings,” Mr. Townsend said in a statement this 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 last 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.”

AAA pointed to statistics showing shrinking unemployment and rises in both personal income and real disposable income.

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

Americans also are expected to spend more money during this year’s Thanskgiving holiday, measured from Wednesday to the subsequent Sunday, AAA said. The media 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 take up 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” Mr. Townsend said Friday. “There’s 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.”

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 last 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 roundtrip 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.

Other forms of transportation — like train, bus, watercraft, and combinations — will make up only 2 percent of travel this year with about 900,000 Americans, a 14.7 percent increase from last year.

Hotel rates will increase 6 percent to 7 percent, and ring up at $145 a night for AAA Three Diamond or mid-range lodgings and $103 a night for AAA Two Diamond hotels. Meanwhile car rental rates will average $37 per weekend day, an 11 percent decrease from last year.

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