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Holiday travel projected to plunge by at least 29% this year
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Holiday travel projected to plunge by at least 29% this year

Holiday travel is expected to fall by at least 29% this year as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical experts caution people to stay home and avoid large gatherings amid a national surge in coronavirus pandemic.

After determining Thanksgiving travel fell by as much as 20% this year, AAA Travel projects at least 34 million fewer people will travel this Christmas season as compared to last year. While as many as 84.5 million Americans may still hit the road between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3, the American Automobile Association "expects the vast majority of Americans to stay home this holiday season." 

“While Thanksgiving is traditionally spent gathering with friends and family, the year-end holidays are when Americans often venture out for longer, more elaborate vacations. That will not be the case this year,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. “Public health concerns, official guidance not to travel, and an overall decline in consumer sentiment have encouraged the vast majority of Americans to stay home for the holidays.”

The CDC is encouraging people to avoid travel and to take a COVID-19 test one to three days before traveling and three to five days afterward, while also minimizing nonessential activities seven days after traveling anywhere. It advises travelers to bring face masks, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, a thermometer and extra water and food to minimize stops if they do decide to drive somewhere.

AAA Travel projects the majority of travelers this Christmas season will travel by car, with road trips accounting for 96% of holiday travel. As many as 81 million Americans will travel somewhere by car this week, about 25% less than last year. Air travel is projected to plummet 60% to about 2.9 million.

"Americans are looking to the public health landscape, including COVID-19 case numbers, to make their travel decisions,” said Jeanette Casselano McGee, AAA spokesperson.

While overall traffic volumes are expected to be down, travel times still could be 20% more than during normal pandemic congestion level, especially in major metro areas and highways like the Borman Expressway, the Indiana Toll Road and Interstate 65.

“Despite warnings, Thanksgiving traffic surged more than 30% above the daily pandemic average in some states,” said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at INRIX. “We expect a similar increase around the upcoming winter holidays unless stricter travel restrictions are put in place and followed.”

A GasBuddy survey found nearly 34% of Americans still expect to hit the road this holiday season, even though 60% said COVID-19 affected their holiday travel plans. An estimated 10% said they planned to drive instead of taking a plain or train.

“It’s been a nightmarish year for many due to the spread of COVID-19 and economic challenges that came with it, but many Americans have deeply rooted traditions for the holiday and are unwilling to let them slip away like the rest of the year. Ironically, due to the challenges 2020 has presented, gas prices have fallen and we project the national average to be $2.19 per gallon on Christmas Day, the second lowest in the last decade,” said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.

About 31% of Midwesteners planned to take holiday road trips, 34% of whom planned to cross state lines.

“We’re expecting to see heightened driving activity across some of the most hard-hit areas of the coronavirus,” De Haan said. “It’s more important than ever for travelers to remain safe and vigilant on the roads, particularly at rest stops and gas stations, but also amidst state quarantine requirements since many that are hitting the road may be crossing into other states.”

An estimated 78% of those GasBuddy surveyed said the vaccine rollout did not change their plans for the holidays, but 13% said they now feel more optimistic about traveling.

“With most of the country’s views unchanged about driving or celebrating the holidays, fuel demand is expected to rise in the short-term due to holiday travel before tapering off to likely multi-month lows once the New Year arrives. Our 2021 Fuel Outlook being released in early January will discuss how the vaccine will impact gas prices and fuel demand throughout the new year,” said De Haan.

Even with fewer travelers hitting the roads, gas prices still spiked this week in anticipation of the holiday season. Gas prices rose six cents nationally to $2.22 a gallon, jumping by 12 cents a to $2.18 a gallon in Indiana, according to AAA. The price at the pump stood at an average of $2.36 a gallon in the Chicago metropolitan area that includes Northwest Indiana.

AAA said the increase to the highest national average since mid-September has more to do with rising crude oil prices and tightening supply.

“The recent gas price pump jumps are a bit surprising given December demand numbers are the lowest posted for the month since 1999,” AAA spokesperson Molly Hart said. “The increases are likely to be short-lived, especially as holiday road travel is expected to see at least a 25% decline.”

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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