AAA: Thanksgiving travel will be up despite economic uncertainty

WASHINGTON — Despite continued economic uncertainty, more Americans are expected to choose family over finances, resulting in first significant increase in any holiday travel this year, AAA announced Thursday.

AAA forecasts 42.5 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a 4% increase from people who traveled one year ago. This is the first significant increase in any holiday travel this year.

“Driving AAA’s projected increase in the number of Thanksgiving travelers is pent-up demand from Americans who may have foregone holiday travel the last three years,” Travel Services VP Bill Sutherland said. “As consumers weigh the fear of economic uncertainty and the desire to create lasting family memories this holiday, more Americans are expected to choose family and friends over frugality," he said.

“This is the first significant increase in any holiday travel this year,” Sutherland added. “Memorial Day travel was statistically flat while Independence Day and Labor Day travel experienced decreases of 2.5% and 2.4%, respectively.”

While primary economic drivers continue to show improvement from one year ago, growth levels are not high enough to support a quick return to prerecession levels of holiday travel. Rather a slow climb back is expected from 2008 which was a decade-low year for Thanksgiving travel, with only 37.8 million Americans taking a trip. With volumes still below historical averages, pent-up demand will be a contributing factor in increased holiday travel, despite current economic conditions.

Total economic activity, measured as real gross domestic product, is expected to grow by just 1.3% for fourth quarter 2011, compared with fourth quarter 2010. The national unemployment rate is expected to be just fourth-tenths of a percentage point below last year’s level. Personal income, real disposable income and consumer spending are all forecast above last year’s levels. However, the growth rates of these indicators are weaker than last year, and Americans are expressing uncertainty about the future by way of weaker consumer sentiment and consumer comfort survey results. In particular, household net worth is expected to be 5.6% lower in the fourth quarter of this year compared to last year.

The Thanksgiving holiday travel period is defined as Wednesday, Nov. 23 to Sunday, Nov. 27.

AAA’s projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Global Insight. The Boston-based economic research and consulting firm teamed with AAA in 2009 to jointly analyze travel trends during the major holidays. The complete AAA/IHS Global Insight 2011 Thanksgiving Holiday Travel Forecast can be found here.

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