Americans can expect crowded highways and jampacked planes this Christmas holiday, travel analysts predicted Thursday, although only a few more people are expected on the road and fewer will be flying than last year.
The auto group AAA projects that 93.3 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home from Dec. 22 to Jan. 1. That's an increase of 1.6 percent over last year, the group says.
About 90 percent of travelers will drive, AAA predicts, and they'll be going farther than last Christmas -- an average of 760 miles, compared with 726.
And it may cost a little less than it would have earlier this year. The price of gasoline is expected to drop slowly through the end of the year and average about $3.30 a gallon nationally during the holiday, AAA says.
"This year-end holiday season remains the least volatile of all travel holidays as Americans will not let economic conditions or high gas prices dictate if they go home for the holidays or kick off the New Year with a vacation," says Robert Darbelnet, AAA's president.
The U.S. airline industry expects 42 million passengers to fly from Dec. 17 through Jan. 6. That's down about 300,000, or 1 percent, from last year, the industry group Airlines for America says. The group attributes the slight drop to a still tepid economy.
That doesn't mean planes will be less stuffed than they were last year. John Heimlich, the group's chief economist, expects planes to be 86 percent full on average during the holidays. That's about 1 percentage point higher than last year.
Airlines have trimmed the number of seats they make available by cutting flights or going to smaller aircraft to keep planes more filled in a bid to make profits.
They've also bumped fares up seven times this year, though the Transportation Department reports that airfares are about 14 percent less than in 2000 because they haven't kept pace with inflation.
The busiest days to fly: The weekend before Christmas, Dec. 21, 22 and 23; the day after Christmas, Dec. 26; and Jan. 2, the group says.
Hotel rooms are up slightly over last year, AAA says, and rental car rates are up 41 percent. Renting a car this holiday will cost an average of $55 a day, compared with $40 last year, the group calculates.
Despite higher rental rates, Enterprise Rent-a-Car reported Wednesday that advance reservations are up 25 percent over last year. The company attributes the rise to the popularity of traveling by car this time of year.
"Year-over-year, we've generally seen an increase in reservations for the Christmas holiday," said Steve Short, an Enterprise vice president.
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