AAA forecast: More travelers hitting the road for holidays
Winter storms may be brewing, roads could get icy again and gas prices have been ticking upward since last month, but that won't stop Americans from traveling during the holiday season this year, according to AAA.
The automobile club's annual forecast predicts that 94.5 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more between Saturday, Dec. 21, and Wednesday, Jan. 1, an increase of 0.6 percent over last year.
The increase comes, says the group, despite weak economic growth, minimal employment gains and continuing declines in consumer confidence.
Nevertheless, the upward trend marks the fifth consecutive year of increases and the highest travel volume recorded for the season. However, the impact of the increase will likely also be mitigated this year as the group's definition of the holiday season spans 12 days, one more than the 11 it totaled last year.
"Of all the travel holidays, the year-end holiday season remains the least volatile as Americans will not let economic conditions dictate their travel plans to celebrate the holidays," said AAA COO Marshall L. Doney in a statement.
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Ninety-one percent of them will travel by car, says the group, up 0.9 percent from last year. They'll also travel farther—805 miles roundtrip versus 760 miles last year—with those in the Rocky Mountain states expected to travel the most (970 miles on average) and those in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee expected to travel the least (646 miles).
"We're driving up to Massachusetts to see family, staying over in Connecticut one night and continuing the rest of the way on Christmas Eve," said Taylor Schachter of Alexandria, Va., who is opting to drive with her husband and two small children rather than fly.
"A 10-hour drive with a 12-month-old is not exactly my idea of a good time," she said, "but any other means of travel is just too expensive."
According to AAA, other travelers appear to concur as the number of fliers is expected to drop to 5.5 million people, a 1.4 percent drop from last year. With many travelers buying tickets far in advance, the airlines have been able to raise fares to the point that many destinations are significantly pricier than they were a year ago.
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Among those experiencing the greatest spike in average fares over Christmas, according to Kayak.com: Milwaukee (up 16 percent), Fort Lauderdale, Fla., (12 percent), Orlando, Fla., (12 percent), St. Louis (12 percent) and New York (11 percent).
By comparison, those showing the greatest "drop" in average Christmas airfares included Minneapolis, San Francisco, Cleveland and Seattle, all of which slipped a mere 2 percent.
Little wonder, then, that AAA expects more people to hit the roads this holiday season—one reason, perhaps, the group is warning travelers to go easy on the liquid-based holiday spirits if they're going to get behind the wheel.
According to the group's Foundation for Traffic Safety, one in five of all licensed drivers reported having driven when they thought their alcohol level might have been close to, or possibly over, the legal limit in the last year.
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Worse yet, says the group, alcohol-related crashes represent one in three motor vehicle deaths. Given the otherwise joyous nature of the season, that should be a particularly sobering statistic this time of year.
—By NBC News contributor Rob Lovitt. Follow him on Twitter.