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Thanksgiving Travel Numbers to Increase Slightly in 2009

November 18, 2009 By: Staff


Despite economic woes and potential travel frustrations, it appears that plenty of U.S travelers are committed to getting their turkey this year. AAA is predicting that about 38.4 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, which is an increase of 1.4 percent over last year when 37.8 million traveled. Although AAA's forecast number is 600,000 travelers higher than in 2008, it's 2009 projection is lower than the 41 million it predicted in 2008.

According to AAA, there will be more cars on the road this Thanksgiving but fewer passengers in the air. The number of travelers by automobile is expected to be 33.2 million in 2009 compared to 32.5 million last year; an increase of 2.1 percent. The number of travelers by air is expected be 2.3 million compared to 2.5 million in 2008; a decline of 6.7 percent. The number of those traveling by "other" means, including, trains, watercraft, buses and multiple-modes of transportation, is expected to be 2.9 million compared to 2.8 million last year, an increase of 1.2 percent.

Last year, Thanksgiving travel dropped a precipitous 25.2 percent in the wake of the ongoing housing and financial crisis. This year's expected increase in travel reflects improved consumer confidence from one year ago, better financial market performance and a growing sense among many consumers that the worst of the global economic crisis is behind us, AAA said.

"We can also be thankful the gradual recovery we have been seeing in the U.S. travel industry since the start of the summer is continuing," said AAA's director of Travel Services, Glen MacDonell.

Number of Thanksgiving Travelers Going by Air Continues to Decline

Eighty-six percent of Thanksgiving vacationers are expected to travel by automobile, while only 6 percent say they will go by air. In October, the time when most people make decisions in regards to Thanksgiving travel, average gasoline prices were approximately 54 cents cheaper than they were in October 2008. Despite increases in gasoline prices since October this year, most people will not change their decision to fly verses drive since seat availability becomes more limited and airline ticket prices increase as the holiday approaches.

This year's decrease in the number of air travelers continues a decade-long trend in which air travel as a percentage of total Thanksgiving travel has declined substantially. Since 2000, the number of Americans traveling by air during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has dropped an astounding 62 percent. While much of this decrease can be attributed to ongoing economic difficulties, the air travel experience itself has undergone a substantial change since the 1990s with stricter airport security, more frequent flight delays, reduced capacity, added surcharges and fees, all contributing to the decline. Those traveling by "other" means - including trains, watercraft, buses, RVs and multiple modes of travel - are projected to comprise eight percent of holiday travelers.

Average Spending Will Be $718, Average Distance Traveled Will Be 815 Miles

Thanksgiving travelers expect to spend approximately $718 per household this upcoming holiday weekend. With the main purpose of Thanksgiving holiday being a special meal with family and friends, it is not surprising that only 15.7 percent of spending will be for accommodations, while 32 percent will be for transportation. Food and beverage will absorb 21 percent of spending and shopping will account for 16 percent. Entertainment and recreation will account for 10 percent of spending on average. "Other" or miscellaneous spending is five percent.

Thanksgiving travelers will journey an average of 815 miles roundtrip this upcoming holiday weekend. More than one-third (37 percent) of travelers will travel 250 miles or less round trip. Slightly less than one-quarter (24 percent) of weekend travelers will log between 251 and 700 miles. And 38 percent will travel more than 700 miles roundtrip.

Airfare, Lodging and Rental Car Costs Will Be Lower

According to AAA's Leisure Travel Index— a monitor of pricing in 20 popular cities across the U.S. for hotel and car rentals, as well as 40 pairs of cities for air travel pricing— the lowest average published airfares over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend are expected to decrease 4 percent from last year to an average of $170 per roundtrip ticket. Car rental rates are down 3 percent to an average of $44 per day for a mid-size car versus $45 per day last year. Rates for AAA Three Diamond lodgings are expected to be 11 percent less than last year with travelers spending an average of $128 per night. Travelers planning to stay at AAA Two Diamond lodgings will pay 13 percent less than last year; an average of $92 per night.

Holiday Forecast Methodology

AAA's projections are based on research conducted by IHS Global Insight. The Lexington, MA-based economic research and consulting firm teamed with AAA earlier this year as part of an agreement to jointly analyze travel trends during the major holidays. AAA has been reporting on holiday travel trends for more than two decades. For purposes of this forecast the Thanksgiving holiday travel period is defined as trips that include travel of 50 miles or more away from home during the period from Wednesday, November 25 to Sunday, November 29. The complete AAA / IHS Global Insight 2009 Thanksgiving holiday forecast can be found at

In cooperation with AAA, IHS Global Insight has developed an approach to forecasting actual travel that explicitly considers current economic conditions, past holiday travel trends and behavior, and the recent assessment of pre-holiday American travel intentions derived from a survey of 1,350 American households.

The intentions figures act as a leading indicator, but do not constitute the forecast itself. Instead, travel intentions overlay other key travel drivers along with past trends in an effort to project what Americans will actually do. The approach recognizes Americans do not always behave as they say they will.

The actual travel figures come from the ongoing travel panel database of D.K. Shifflet & Associates. DKSA interviews over 50,000 American households per month in an effort to track trip incidence, composition, behavior, and spending, all after the trips have been taken.

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