AAA says a record-breaking number of Americans will travel for the Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year holidays. The organization predicts that more than 115.6 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home between Sunday, Dec. 21, and Wednesday, Jan. 1. This is a 3.9 percent increase over last year, or 4.3 million more packing up their sleighs for a holiday trip.
“A strong economy with very low unemployment and strength in consumer spending is helping to create lots of holiday cheer this year,” said Marie Dodds, public affairs director for AAA Oregon/Idaho. “This is the eighth year in a row to set a new record for holiday travel volume, and the 11th consecutive year of growth in travel for the year-end holidays.”
More Americans will drive
The vast majority of travelers—91 percent or 104.8 million people—will take a holiday road trip, an increase of 3.9 percent over last year.
Gas prices have been steadily dropping in the past month and are expected to fall even more leading up to the holidays. The national average will likely remain more expensive than last year’s holiday prices.
Even though AAA projects a record number of Americans traveling by car, it does not expect traffic delays to be extreme. The busiest days on the highways are expected to be Dec. 26 and 27 between about 4 and 6 p.m. when some trips could take twice as long as a normal trip.
“With the kids out of school and many Americans taking days off over the holidays, travel will be more spread out so we shouldn’t see a ton of traffic gridlock,” Dodds said.
Prepare for crowded airports
Air travel is expected to increase by 4.9 percent compared to last year, with nearly 7 million Americans flying to their holiday destinations. This is the eighth consecutive year of growth in the number of air travelers and the most since 2003.
AAA’s flight booking data reveals that most travelers depart two to four days prior to the Christmas holiday, Dec. 21-23, with the 22nd being the single busiest air travel day of the holiday week. These travelers, on average, pay ticket prices between $593 and $639. Christmas Eve is the best day to travel, with the lowest average price per ticket ($527) and the fewest crowds of the holiday week. Many travelers opt to fly after the Christmas holiday leading up to New Year’s, and they pay a premium to do so. Dec. 26 has the highest average ticket price of the week at $692.
Airports are busy and security lines may be longer than usual around the holidays. Travelers should plan to arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to domestic flights and three hours before international flights. During peak travel times, people should contact their airline for guidance, as it may be necessary to arrive even earlier.
This time of year, travelers need to also be aware of potential weather delays. They should check flight status regularly before traveling to the airport. Some airlines will waive cancellation or change fees when bad weather hits.
Travel by other modes, including trains, buses, rails and cruise ships, will increase by 3 percent to 3.81 million.
Hotel rates fluctuate
According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index, travelers will also pay a bit more at AAA Two Diamond hotels, where prices are 2 percent less than last year, or $119 per night. The average rate for AAA Three Diamond hotels are up 1 percent to an average nightly cost of $153.
Holiday road trippers should budget more for a rental car this year, as daily rates are up 11 percent over last year. At $84, the daily average car rental rate this holiday season is the most expensive in 10 years.
AAA’s projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Markit. The London-based business information
provider teamed with AAA in 2009 to jointly analyze travel trends during major holidays.