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Dip in travelers won't guarantee smooth sailing

  • Story Highlights
  • 41 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home this Thanksgiving
  • A slight dip in the number of travelers is the first decline since 2002
  • The largest predicted decline is among air travelers
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By Marnie Hunter
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(CNN) -- Fewer Americans are expected to travel for Thanksgiving this year, but those who are taking to the roads and skies may still face congestion.

Travelers gather their luggage before checking in for a flight at San Francisco International Airport Tuesday.

Travelers gather their luggage before checking in for a flight at San Francisco International Airport Tuesday.

About 41 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home around the holiday, according to AAA auto club. That figure is down 1.4 percent from last year, meaning 600,000 fewer travelers. The dip represents the first decline in travelers since 2002.

"I think with the economy going downward, people are holding off on traveling," AAA spokeswoman Christie Hyde said, noting that the largest drop this Thanksgiving is in flying.

The Air Transport Association of American is projecting a 10 percent decrease in the number of air passengers flying over a 12-day period around the holiday, but airline capacity cuts prompted by record-high fuel prices over the summer mean planes will remain crowded.

Travel in the skies appeared to be off to a good start Wednesday afternoon. Only a few major airports were experiencing delays by mid-afternoon, and most delays were well under an hour.

The ATA expects planes to be close to 90 percent full, on average, on the busiest travel days.

"You'll see plenty of people on airplanes that are full," ATA spokesman David Castelveter said.

He urges air travelers to arrive at the airport early, be prepared to go through security checkpoints and travel light, as space in overhead compartments and underneath seats will be limited. iReport: Share your travel experiences

Ball State University student Katie Dorsey, 21, planned to fly out of Indianapolis' new airport for the first time. She usually makes the trip to Orlando, Florida, to visit her father a couple times a year.

"I know they have more TSA checkpoint lanes, so it should be faster getting through security, but I'm not sure as far as lines," Dorsey said of the new airport. "I'm going to try to get there at least two hours before my flight this time."

Last week the TSA expanded its family lane program to every security checkpoint. Families, individuals who are unfamiliar with security procedures, travelers with special needs and those carrying medically necessary liquids in amounts exceeding the TSA's allowances can use these lanes to get through security at their own pace.

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Dorsey planned to check a bag on her AirTran flight because her travel dates dodge the carrier's fee for a first checked bag, going into effect December 5. Many major carriers have instituted fees on passengers' first checked bags, with higher fees for additional bags.

In addition to mounting airline fees, Thanksgiving holiday travelers are paying on average 8 percent more for tickets this year, according to AAA's Leisure Travel Index.

iReporter Bart Wible, 28, couldn't afford to pay the fares he found to fly from West Palm Beach, Florida, with his son and fiancee to visit family in Indiana.

He looked for tickets online four or five times a week for several months, but the lowest fare he could find was $348 per ticket. Wible said he drives to Indiana when he has time to make the 16-hour trip.

"Lately, it's turned into a trip that I have to drive. Even whenever gas prices were at almost $4 a gallon, I had to drive it, because it's still less expensive than flying when you look at three people traveling," Wible said.

Driving isn't an option for the long weekend, he said, even with average gas prices dipping below $1.90 a gallon.

Wible won't be among the 33.2 million Americans AAA expects to travel by car this year. The projected number of holiday drivers is down 1.2 percent from last year's 33.6 million drivers.

AAA expects to assist five million stranded motorists during the holiday season. AAA's Hyde urges motorists to get their vehicles checked out before hitting the road.

"Even though people might be trying to tighten their purse strings right now, it's not the time to let your maintenance lapse on your car, especially if you live in a cold-weather environment," Hyde said.

Have your antifreeze checked, check your windshield cleaning fluid, replace your wiper blades and monitor your tire pressure, she advised.

As with any travel, the weather will be a big factor in how smoothly drivers are able to get to their destinations.


To ease congestion in the sky that may be compounded by weather, President Bush has authorized the use of military airspace for Thanksgiving "express lanes." Corridors along the East Coast, in the Midwest, the Southwest and the West Coast will be opened to commercial airliners.

"Every little bit helps, no question about that," said the ATA's Castelveter. "When we run into congestion in the airspace, having those extra lanes is a benefit. It's not a solution to delays. It's one of a number of solutions to reducing delays."

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