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Thanksgiving travel: Brace for a big surge

By Aaron Smith, staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- An improving economy is behind an expected surge in Thanksgiving travel, according to a forecast released Tuesday.

Motorist group AAA and IHS Global Insight project that 42.2 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. That would be an increase of more than 11% from last year, when 37.9 million people traveled during the 5-day holiday period.

The organizations based the forecast on signs of an improving economy, including the gain of 2.2 percentage points in gross domestic product since Thanksgiving 2009. They're using the GDP growth, as well as signs that consumers are shedding debt, as indications that more people will crowd the highways and airports for the holidays.

Thanksgiving travel over the last two years has ranged from sluggish to historically low. Last year, travel volume rose an anemic 0.2% compared to 2008, when travel plunged more than 25% as the recession took hold.

Most people will travel by automobile, which accounts for 94% of all Thanksgiving travel, the report said. The highways will be crowded by a 12% increase in driving compared to last year, according to the forecast.

Gasoline prices have jumped 24 cents per gallon over the last year, but that increase "is not sizeable enough to discourage travel," said AAA, in its report. "Moreover, the increase in gasoline price is expected to be offset by the healthier economic positions of households this holiday relative to last year."

About 4% of Thanksgiving travelers will fly to their destinations, said the forecast. This includes a projected increase of 3.5% in air travel "based on improvements in the airline industry and its recent increases in capacity." That would be a distinct change in airline travel, which has plunged in recent years.

The Thanksgiving holiday period is defined as starting Wednesday, Nov. 24 and ending Sunday, Nov. 28. To top of page

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