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Rise in Xmas U.S. travel expected

Americans will travel in potentially record-high numbers this Christmas-New Year’s holiday, despite travel costs that are up nearly across the board.

AAA estimates that 63.50 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this holiday, a 1.7 percent increase from last year’s 62.42 million travelers.

“Double-digit increases from last year in hotel rates, air fares, and gas prices won’t keep people from traveling in record numbers over the holidays,” said Wendy Weigel, vice president, AAA Minneapolis Travel.

“Even with two great Christmas getaway spots—Cancun and New Orleans—still recovering from hurricanes, more than 63 million of us will hit the skies, seas, and highways for the holiday.”

Approximately 51.54 million travelers (81 percent) expect to go by motor vehicle, a 1.7 percent increase from the 50.68 million who drove a year ago. Holiday auto travelers will find gas prices nationwide currently averaging $2.20 for a gallon of self-serve regular gasoline—down approximately 90 cents from the records set over Labor Day weekend, but still 38 cents higher than a year ago.


Another 8.75 million (14 percent) plan to travel by airplane, up 1.6 percent from the 8.61 million that flew over the holidays last year. A projected 3.21 million travelers (5 percent) will go by train, bus, or other mode of transportation, up slightly from 3.13 million a year ago.

“Airports will stay busy across Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s as Americans visit family, escape to tropical islands, head for cruise ships, hit the ski slopes, and more for the holidays,” said Connie Patava, travel services regional manager, AAA Minnesota/Iowa. “Unlike the traditional ‘obligatory trips’ to visit relatives at Thanksgiving, December offers a chance for people to take get-away vacations.”

In addition to highest-ever yuletide pump prices, travelers will face much higher prices for hotels and airfares, according to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index. Holiday hotel rates are up 14 percent for AAA-rated Three Diamond hotels, as strong demand allows hoteliers to raise rates to near their Christmas 2001 peak. Airfares are up 11 percent from last year, but remain below their peak levels during the 2000 holidays. Rental car rates are down on average about 2 percent from their top prices last Christmas.

“Travelers waiting to make Christmas plans until the last minute are finding much higher rates and fewer options,” added Weigel. “Hotel, airline, and car rental reservations made at for this holiday period were booked an average of 53 days in advance—nearly double last year’s 29-day lead time.”

Where are travelers headed? The top 10 destinations for hotel bookings at for the last two weeks of December are: 1. Orlando; 2. Las Vegas; 3. Los Angeles/Anaheim; 4. New York City; 5. San Francisco; 6. San Diego; 7. Chicago; 8. Ft. Lauderdale; 9. Boston; and 10. Nashville.

The greatest number of Christmas-New Year’s auto travelers will originate in the Southeast with 13.34 million, followed by the West, 13.11 million; Midwest, 10.35 million; the Great Lakes, 8.19 million; and the Northeast, 6.54 million.

The Southeast also is expected to produce the largest number of air travelers with 2.59 million, followed closely by the West with 2.54 million; then the Northeast with 1.68 million; Midwest with 1.06 million; and Great Lakes with 870,000.

Most travelers will avoid the high hotel rates, with 69 percent of holiday travelers expected to stay at a friend or relative’s home. Hotels and motels are a distant second at 22 percent, followed by cabin/condo, 4 percent; camper/trailer/RV/tent, 1 percent; other, 1 percent; no overnight stay, 1 percent; and didn’t know, 2 percent.

Small towns and rural areas are the expected destination for 37 percent of holiday travelers, followed closely by cities, 35 percent. Oceans and beaches should see 11 percent of travelers, followed by mountain areas, 8 percent; 2 percent for lake areas, 2 percent for state/national parks and 2 percent for theme/amusement parks. Another 3 percent responded with other and 1 percent didn’t know.

Research for Christmas-New Year’s holiday travel is based on a national telephone survey of nearly 1,400 adults by the Travel Industry Association of America, which conducts special research for AAA.