More Americans will hit the road this Thanksgiving than last, according to travel services company AAA. But they'll take shorter trips to save on gas and other costs as household budgets remain tight.
In its annual Thanksgiving travel forecast released Tuesday, AAA predicts 43.6 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home over the holiday, up just 0.7 percent from last year. That compares with healthier growth of 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively, in the past two years. Thanksgiving travel fell by 25 percent in 2008, the first full holiday season after the recession began.
The number of travelers forecast to drive, fly or hop on a train or bus is still 26 percent below the peak in 2005 and 14 percent below 2007.
Holiday travel is mostly done by car, and a recent drop in gas prices could inspire some reluctant travelers to get behind the wheel. The national average cost for fuel has declined 35 cents per gallon in the past month. AAA expects further declines through the holiday, although the price of gas on Thanksgiving Day should be close to last year's holiday record of $3.32 per gallon.
AAA says that a stronger economy is needed to spur a bigger jump in travel demand. The auto club believes that trips will average 588 miles this year, down from 706 miles a year earlier. That's partly because of an expected decline in air travelers. But it also reflects a continued focus on saving money.
"Despite mild improvements in unemployment, the housing market and greater consumer optimism, the economy is still struggling to keep its head above water," AAA said in its forecast.
Airlines for America, the main trade group for U.S. airlines, expects a slight increase in flying, although it uses a 12-day period for its prediction. AAA defines the Thanksgiving holiday travel period as Wednesday, Nov. 21 to Sunday, Nov. 25.
AAA's forecast, which is produced from a combination of a traveler survey and economic analysis, was done before Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast. AAA said it doesn't know the full impact the storm will have on travel in the Mid-Atlantic region, but it expects it will be significant.