Holday travel expected to be second-highest in decade

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Travel over the Christmas holiday is expected to be the second-highest in the decade, signaling growing consumer confidence.

AAA projects 91.9 million Americans will travel from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2, up 1.4 percent over last year's number of 90.7. Nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population is expected to be traveling. The highest travel volume in the past decade was recorded on Christmas 2006, with 93.65 million people traveling.

AAA spokesperson Pam Moen said holiday travel was a little lower from 2007-2009 because of the economic downturn. Travel had hit a record high in 2006, but then started declining. In holiday season 2007, there were 88.7 million travelers; 85.7 million in 2008; 89.5 million in 2009; and 90.7 million in 2010.

The higher number this year indicates people may be feeling a little bitter about their personal finances and the economy, she said.

"We saw people cut back on their discretionary spending in 2007-2009 when the recession was in its stronghold and people were fearful about the future," Moen said.

She said travel really started picking up again this Thanksgiving, the first holiday in 2011 where AAA projected to see a year over year increase. She said the 2011 summer holidays such as Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor day weekends didn't have as many travelers.

Median spending is expected to be $718, which is a three percent increase from $694 last year. Fuel and transportation costs combine to consume the largest share of holiday spending (32 percent), followed by shopping and food and beverages (tied at 19 percent). Other expenditures include accommodations (15 percent), entertainment and recreation (12 percent), and other costs (four percent).

In addition to possible economic recovery, she said Thanksgiving and Christmas are traditionally holidays where people make more of an effort to travel to see family and friends.

She expects travelers to be hitting the roads on Friday, with many travelers coming back on Monday.

She said gas prices could also have a positive effect on travel numbers. She said Thursday's statewide average gas price was 3.19. A year ago travelers were paying an average 3.01 for gas in Wisconsin. Although it's a bit higher than last year, she said it's significantly lower than the $4.11 high in the summer of 2011.

Moen cautions drivers with the high amount of road and air traffic predicted.

"People are very busy this time of year, and it's just really important to allow plenty of extra time for travel whether driving or flying. If you are flying, be sure to get to the airport as much as two hours ahead of time. Security lines may be longer than usual. Be sure you are acquainted with security guidelines about what can and can't be taken on the plane," Moen said.

She also said although weather in the area appears to be relatively mild, she said it can always change quickly.

"By road or by air it's important to keep an eye on the weather. Things can change in a hurry, particularly if you are traveling by air. There can be weather in other parts of country that can disrupt air travel. Be flexible," she said.

With thousands of motorists expected to travel on state roadways over the Christmas and New Year holiday weekends, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) announced that road work will be suspended where possible for the weekends to reduce congestion and improve traffic flow. IDOT also provided advance notice of lane closures for the holiday weekend to aid motorists' travel plans and improve safety.

"With heavy traffic expected during the upcoming holiday weekends, IDOT is providing a list of lane closures in advance to help motorists plan their trips," said Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider. "With less construction activity these weekends, traffic congestion can be reduced, and safety and traffic flow will improve."

Starting at 3 p.m. Friday, December 23, IDOT will suspend all non-emergency road work for the Christmas holiday weekend and open up all lanes where possible through midnight, Sunday, Dec. 25. In addition, non-emergency road work will also be suspended and lanes opened for the New Year's holiday weekend, starting at 3 p.m. Friday, Dec. 30, through midnight on Sunday, Jan. 1. Again on that weekend, some project construction zones will have lane closures in effect.

AAA forecasts 91.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the 2011-12 year-end holiday travel season, a 1.4 percent increase over the 90.7 million people who traveled one year ago.

In Wisconsin, nearly 1.8 million people are expected to travel for the year-end holidays, a .5 percent increase over 2010, according to the AAA forecast. Of those, 1.6 million plan to travel by auto while 96,000 will travel by air. Travelers in Wisconsin will find gas prices averaging $3.23 per gallon, 26 cents more than a year ago, but down nearly 90 cents from our summer high.

According to AAA, fifty-nine percent of projected travelers feel the economy has either no impact on their travel plans or feel like things have improved for them. The remaining 41 percent state an intention to scale back travel plans due to economic concerns. Last year, 67 percent of surveyed travelers stated that their travel plans were not impacted by the economic conditions at that time.

According to a survey of traveler intentions, the average distance traveled by Americans during the year-end holiday travel season is expected to be 726 miles, a decline from 2010-11 when travelers planned to log an average of 1,052 miles.

The good news is the weather will be clear and dry for Christmas so travelers should have no trouble getting to family gatherings. The bad news is, if there is a sled or snowboard under the Christmas tree, it could be a while before they can be used.

Friday will be sunny with highs in the lower 30s and southwest winds at 5 to 15 mph.

Friday night will be mostly clear with low temperatures in the lower 20s and southwest winds 5 to 15 mph.

Saturday, Christmas Eve, will be sunny with highs in the upper 30s and southwest winds at 5 to 10 mph.

Saturday night will be partly cloudy with lows in the mid 20s.

Christmas Day will be mostly sunny with highs in the upper 30s.

Sunday night will be mostly clear with lows in the mid 20s.

Monday will be sunny with highs in the lower 40s.

Monday night will be partly cloudy with lows in the upper 20s.

Tuesday will be partly sunny with highs in the upper 30s.

Tuesday night will be partly cloudy with lows in the mid 20s.

Wednesday will be mostly sunny with highs in the mid 30s.

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