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Economy Puts A Damper On Holiday Travel

Thanksgiving travelers pass though the baggage claim area at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport Tuesday.
Rex Arbogast
/
AP
Thanksgiving travelers pass though the baggage claim area at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport Tuesday.

Americans struggling with financial pressures amid the recession have less to be thankful for this holiday season, and that is curbing their travel plans again this year.

About 38 million domestic travelers are expected to go somewhere over the Thanksgiving holiday — way down from the roughly 58 million who made such journeys in 2005 when the economy was in better shape.

In 2008, Thanksgiving travel plummeted a staggering 25 percent. That's when things "really fell off a cliff," said Steve Piraino, a travel analyst with IHS Global Insight. This year will see only a small recovery from that low.

Of those individuals who will travel, most — 33.2 million according to AAA — have decided to go by car for financial reasons, he said.

When it comes to travel, "everything in 2009 has been about three things: price, price and price," said Douglas Quinby, a travel industry analyst with Atlanta-based research firm PhoCusWright.

Household budget pressures and the high cost of air travel have many people opting for the family car. Many more are deciding not to travel at all, Quinby said.

This year is a continuation of the shock that started in 2008, when the double-barreled effect of the recession and a summer of $4-per-gallon gasoline first hit home. This year travel overall is up an anemic 1.4 percent and auto travel — despite gasoline averaging $2.64 a gallon – is up just 2.1 percent from last year, according to AAA.

Last year also saw a spike in train travel amid the huge increase in oil prices in 2008. Rail traffic should "come back down to earth" this year, though, because most people choose the convenience of their own car for ground travel, Quinby said.

Other would-be travelers have opted out altogether. Julie Bennink, 26, who works in public relations in Chicago, said unexpected medical bills contributed to her decision not to see family this year.

"My mom was not really thrilled with me when I told her," Bennink said, adding that the $400 for a rental car and gas to drive the three hours to Grand Rapids, Mich., for Thanksgiving dinner would have been too much for her.

Sarah Vaughan of Key West, Fla., stopped at the rest area with her fiancee and their three dogs on their way to Ocala to visit family. Flying wasn't an option.

"I haven't flown since 1998," she said. "No money, no time. When you live and work in paradise, you're short on both of those things."

That's bad news for an already struggling airline industry. Just 2.3 million of travelers will fly over the holiday. While much of that is about the cost of a plane ticket, headaches at check-in have also taken a toll.

"Air travel has been pretty much in decline since 9/11 and the recession has just added fuel to the fire," Piraino said. "Air travel is a complex story. Hassles at the airport accounts for some of it."

Quinby said that for those who are flying, "we've seen an increase in the number of Web sites that travelers use to find the best deal."

Sites such as Kayak.com and Priceline that consolidate low-cost airfares have done "extremely well" this year, he said.

And there is some hope that as the economy begins to turn around, so will the travel picture. The small increase in traffic "shows some consumers are starting to return to their travel habits and that consumer confidence is starting to return in some measure," AAA's manager of regulatory affairs, Andrew Delmege, said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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