Nearly 40 million Americans get ready to hit the roads

November 24, 2010 9:41:21 AM PST
Michael Sommermeyer's Thanksgiving plan goes like this: Load his wife and children into their Ford Taurus, hand his teens an iPad stocked with movies and drive 15 hours - from Las Vegas to Texas.

Sommermeyer would not have it any other way.

Lost in the frenzy over new airport inspections is the fact that 94 percent of holiday travelers will reach their destination by road this year. For some, a snarled freeway and $3-a-gallon gasoline is a welcome respite from the madness of air travel.

"The full body scan, I am worried about it because of the radiation," he said. "They claim it's safe, but who knows?"

Roughly 39.7 million will travel by road this year, a 12 percent increase from last Thanksgiving, according to a AAA travel survey of 50,000 U.S. households conducted during the week of Oct. 25.

With more people traveling for the holiday this year than last, the numbers who chose to fly also went up. Just over 1.62 million holiday travelers are flying the skies, a 3.5 percent increase from last year, AAA said.

AAA conducted its travel survey before many groups began organizing protests at airports against additional security procedures, including the body scan machines and a more rigorous, intrusive pat-down process.

When they do travel, families are not straying far from home. Those who travel by car will drive roughly 816 miles over the holiday weekend. Wednesday and Sunday are generally the busiest days for air and road travelers.

AAA attributes part of the increase in travelers to people feeling more confident about the economy and, in some cases, taking Wednesday and Friday off to make the drive.

"The economy is being perceived as turning around," AAA spokesman Michael Geeser said. "They think things are better for themselves, so maybe they are taking an extra day off from work and making it a long weekend."

The average lowest round-trip airfare is expected to cost $176 for the top 40 U.S. air routes, AAA reported. Car rental rates, however, could cost an average of $42 over the holiday weekend, down 4 percent from last year.

Marie Johnston, 48, was traveling with her parents from Glens Falls, N.Y., to Columbus, Ohio, where her daughter, a recent college graduate, was hosting Thanksgiving in her new house. She took three days' vacation and scheduled an overnight stop in Buffalo, N.Y., where her son attends college, to break up the 10-hour trip.

Grabbing a cup of coffee at a rest stop just east of Rochester, N.Y., the family agreed that cost and convenience were the most important factors to them.

"Partially because of the recession, partially because maybe people feel more secure when they're in their own vehicle, and they have more liberty on where they'd like to go and if they change plans," the legal assistant said.

The family figured on about $100 in gas in their Honda sport utility vehicle - using a grocery chain's incentive discounts to save on every gallon - for the 1,250-mile roundtrip, compared with about $800 for airfare.

For his 15 hour roadtrip, Sommermeyer, a 46-year-old foreclosure mediation analyst, planned to start Tuesday night. While his children watch the iPad - and hopefully drift off to sleep - he and his wife can listen to the audiobook "Decision Points" by former President George W. Bush.

They have made the drive to his father-in-law's northern Texas house every Thanksgiving for the past eight years. He usually faces snow showers on rural roads and a few car accidents, but the economics made sense, especially in these tough times, he said.

"It's a lot cheaper for us," he said. "Even if we got a good deal on airfare, it would still be over $200 per person."

Along Interstate 70 in Colorado's eastern plains, many holiday travelers said they were happy to make 1,000-mile-plus treks to avoid the air - and airport lines on the ground.

Eric Flynn, 35, of Salt Lake City, was driving to Junction City, Kan., to spend the holiday with family. Flynn, who was traveling with his wife, 4-year-old daughter and the family dog, was stopped at a gas station in rural Watkins, Colo., to fuel up.

He said he was happy to be on the road instead of in the air.

"It kind of seems like a pain" to fly these days, Flynn said, as he filled up the car's tank at the gas station on the wind-swept plains, the snowcovered mountains towering on the horizon.

"You get in the car, do your own thing," he said. "It might take longer, but it's more relaxing."

Brian McClure, 22, chose to drive from Virginia to his hometown of Paducah, Ky., with his wife, Amber, 21. While cost and convenience were the main reasons to drive, he was relieved he would be avoiding the new screening policies.

"May God have mercy on the first person that does that to us," said McClure, while stopping for a rest outside Richmond, Va., a few hours into his 12-hour road trip. "I don't care if it's $10 a gallon, I'm not going through that."

"I just want to get there," said McClure, who recently returned from two years in the Middle East with the Navy. "This is my first Thanksgiving and first Christmas in three years."

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