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Thanksgiving travel AAA: US weekend to be busiest since 2005

Zlati Meyer
Jonathan Alcorn | Bloomberg | Getty Images

With Americans feeling better about their finances, they will hit the road in near-record numbers over the Thanksgiving weekend despite higher gasoline prices, experts predict.

An estimated 50.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more to get to their destinations over the four-day weekend, the most since 2005, according to AAA's annual forecast.

That's 1.6 million more people — or a 3.3 percent increase — over 2016.

"A strong economy and labor market are generating rising incomes and higher consumer confidence, fueling a strong year for the travel industry, which will continue into the holiday season," said Bill Sutherland, a senior vice president for the travel organization AAA.

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The vast majority of people traveling for the holiday are driving — 89.3 percent, or 45.5 million, up 3.2 percent from last year.

But gas prices will be at their highest since 2014. This month's national average price is $2.56 a gallon for regular, up 9 cents from a month ago and up 40 cents from a year ago, according to AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Report

The increased cost at the pump is due to higher demand, the lingering effect of Hurricane Harvey, OPEC production cuts and unrest in the Middle East, according to experts. But that's not deterring motorists.

"Consumers are in the best mood they've been in since the financial crisis, and that usually equates to more gasoline usage," said Phil Flynn, senior oil analyst at Chicago-based Price Futures Group. "Even though you may have to pay a little more to get the turkey to grandma's house ... you're feeling a little better about the economy."

Those flying to their destinations are getting a break, thanks to the cheapest average airfare — $157 — for the top 40 domestic routes in a half-decade, according to AAA. It's also the mode of travel seeing the most growth; there will be 5% more airplane passengers this year for a total of 3.95 million.

Other forms of travel, such as trains, buses and cruises, will see a slight bump — up 1.1 percent to 1.48 million travelers.

The massive volume of people zooming around the country to get to their Thanksgiving feasts is sure to result in travel delays.

Transportation analytics firm INRIX identified what are expected to be some of the biggest bottlenecks over the holidays. They are expected to include 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday in Chicago, where trips can take three times as long as during non-rush hour, and 4 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. in San Francisco. Topping the list of most congested routes through cities are Interstate 5 through southeast Los Angeles and Interstate 495 E in New York.

"Thanksgiving has historically been one of the busiest holidays for road trips, and this year we could see record-level travel delays," INRIX transportation analyst Bob Pishue said. "Knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic."

Maureen Dare will join the masses on the roads when she, her husband, two sons and her stepson pile into their black 2017 GMC Yukon XL to drive from suburban Detroit to her brother's home in Chicago.

She plans to leave as early as possible Wednesday to avoid the traffic but still expects the four-hour drive to take an extra hour. She added that it's worth the hassle.

"I factor in the cost of being away from my family and wanting to be there. It's just something you deal with," the 48-year-old General Motors program manager said. "Everyone has their own unlimited data plan, so everyone can do what they want to entertain themselves."