While the number of people traveling during the Thanksgiving holiday is expected to increase for the fourth consecutive year, projections indicate that recession-weary Americans remain tentative about straying too far or spending too much.
According to AAA, 43.6 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home between Nov. 21 and and Nov. 25, a 0.7% increase over 2011, when 43.3 million people hit the highways and skies. About 90% of these travelers are expected to trek by automobile, a 0.6% jump from last year as air travel dips 1.7%.
Although gasoline prices have continued at historic highs for much of 2012, the average price has fallen by about 40 cents a gallon since last month, AAA reported. That decline is expected to continue through the holiday travel period, with prices on par with last year's $3.32 per gallon.
AAA's projections indicate people are still exercising caution in their travel budgets. Median spending is expected to drop 10% to $498, while the average Thanksgiving trip is expected to be 118 miles shorter than last year's 706-mile trip.
Despite consistent gains each year for the past four years, Americans still have a long way to go before they're back to 2005's decade-high of nearly 59 million travelers — or even the nearly 51 million two years later. That was just before the crash of the nation's housing, automotive and financial markets sent the United States into a recession from which it is still struggling to recover.
"Thanksgiving travel hit a decade low in 2008 when only 37.8 million Americans traveled," Robert Darbelnet, AAA president and CEO, said in a statement. "Since that year, we have seen a steady increase in the number of travelers taking to the roads and skies for the holiday. Americans continue to find ways to economize their budgets so they can gather around the holiday table to carve the turkey."
AAA said it did not yet have a clear idea about the extent to which Hurricane Sandy's aftermath will affect travel from the Mid-Atlantic region, though it was expected to be substantial.