More holiday travelers taking to the road this year

travel

(CNN) — Expect traffic this month, as more than a quarter of the country hits the road for the holidays.

Some 93.3 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles from home during the year-end holiday travel period, predicts AAA. That’s an increase of 1.6% over 2011. This year, AAA defines the holiday period as Saturday, December 22, to Tuesday, January 1, 2013.

“The year-end holiday season remains the least volatile of all travel holidays as Americans will not let economic conditions or high gas prices dictate if they go home for the holidays or kick off the New Year with a vacation,” said AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet in a statement.

“Primary economic indicators all show modest improvement from last year and AAA is projecting an increase in the number of Americans stuffing their stockings with airline tickets and hotel reservations,” said Darbelnet.

The national average price of gasoline has dropped about 50 cents a gallon since September but is still at a record high, AAA said. The price may continue to drop and could average $3.20-$3.40 a gallon by January 1, 2013. The drop in gasoline prices may not have an impact on the number of cars on the road, but it could free up money for more spending on presents, dining and entertainment, according to AAA.

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Some 90% of U.S. travelers (84.4 million) say they expect to drive to their destinations this year, a 1.3% increase over last year. Some 5.6 million people will fly, an expected increase of 4.5%. Approximately 3.3 million will use other modes of transportation.

Americans are expected to travel an average distance of 760 miles this year, an increase from the 726 miles the average traveler expected to drive last year.

Travelers are also planning to spend more: AAA predicts median spending of $759 this year, an almost 6% increase over last year.

In a separate forecast, trade group Airlines for America predicted that 42 million passengers will fly over a 21-day holiday period between December 17, 2012, and January 6, 2013. That figure reflects an expected dip of about 300,000 passengers, or a 1% decline, from last year.

“We still have a relatively tepid, albeit growing economy, with high unemployment levels,” said John Heimlich, the organization’s chief economist.

Airlines are experiencing strong bookings relative to available capacity. Planes are expected to be about 85% full, rising to nearly 90% on the busiest days, December 21, 22, 23 and 26 and January 2.

“This is a great time to travel, as carriers are staffed to accommodate the influx of holiday travelers and airfares remain a bargain, having significantly trailed U.S. inflation,” Heimlich said in a statement.

Average airfares are up year over year, but adjusted for inflation, flying costs about 14% less than it did in 2000, according to Airlines for America.

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