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AAA predicts 13% rise in nationwide Thanksgiving travel

By Eric Reinhardt


More than 53 million people are expected to travel during the Thanksgiving holiday period, up 13 percent from 2020.

That’s according to the AAA Thanksgiving travel forecast. 

The figure brings travel volumes within 5 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2019, with air travel “almost completely recovering from its dramatic fall” during the pandemic, up 80 percent over last year. 

“Typically, the day before Thanksgiving is one of the big travel days. Of course, all Thanksgiving week is but the day before and the Sunday after are very busy days, definitely on the roads. And this year, we can expect a lot of the TSA lines and lines at check-in at the airport to be very busy,” Brian Murray, director of travel for AAA Western and Central New York, said as part of an interview AAA provided to upstate New York media outlets.

As restrictions continue to lift and consumer confidence builds, AAA urges travelers to be proactive when making their travel plans this holiday season.

“This Thanksgiving, travel will look a lot different than last year,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in a AAA news release. “Now that the borders are open and new health and safety guidelines are in place, travel is once again high on the list for Americans who are ready to reunite with their loved ones for the holiday.” 

With 6.4 million more people traveling this Thanksgiving coupled with the recent opening of the U.S. borders to fully vaccinated international travelers — AAA contends people should prepare for roads and airports to be “noticeably more crowded.”

“International travel re-opening will allow people to reconnect with friends and family and explore new places, while also giving a much-needed boost to the economy,” Twidale noted. “But it also means airports will be busier than we’ve seen, so travelers must plan for longer lines and extra time for TSA checks.”

Navigating the new travel landscape

This year’s forecast marks the highest single-year increase in Thanksgiving travelers since 2005, according to AAA. 

Despite gas costing over a dollar more per gallon than this time last year, 90 percent of people plan to drive to their Thanksgiving destination. However, the share traveling by air and other modes such as bus, train, or cruise this year will be higher than last year.

Even with air travel seeing a boost this year, the AAA finds that the average lowest airfare runs about 27 percent less than last year, coming in at $132. Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving are still the most expensive and heaviest travel days with Monday being the lightest and least expensive. 

Mid-range hotel rates have increased about 39 percent, with average nightly rates ranging between $137 and $172 for AAA-approved hotels.

Daily car rental rates have increased 4 percent compared to last Thanksgiving at $98. Over the summer, consumers dealt with high costs and limited availability of rental cars in some markets due to the semi-conductor chip shortage impacting automakers. The shortage has subsided, but “it could return as the holidays near,” AAA said.

Forecast methodology

In cooperation with AAA, IHS Markit developed a methodology to forecast actual domestic travel volumes. 

London, England–based IHS Markit (NYSE: INFO) specializes in critical information, analytics, and solutions for the major industries and markets that “drive economies worldwide,” per the AAA release.

The economic variables used to forecast travel for the current holiday are leveraged from IHS Markit’s proprietary databases. These data include macroeconomic drivers such as employment; output; household net worth; asset prices including stock indices; interest rates; housing-market indicators; and variables related to travel and tourism, including prices of gasoline, airline travel, and hotel stays.

Historical travel-volume estimates come from the Travel Performance/Monitor produced by McLean, Virginia–based D.K. Shifflet & Associates. It’s a comprehensive study measuring the travel behavior of U.S. residents. D.K. Shifflet contacts over 50,000 U.S. households each month to obtain detailed travel data to help estimate visitor volume and spending, identify trends, and forecast U.S. travel behavior — all after the trips have been taken, according to AAA. 

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