Thanksgiving Travelers Have Lots of Company

If you plan on leaving home today to start your Thanksgiving holiday, you may find yourself driving slower than a float at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The airports are no piece of pumpkin pie either -- today and Sunday are the two busiest days of the year.

No matter what your mode of transportation, try to make it there by dinnertime Thursday. The National Turkey Federation estimates that Americans will eat 45 million turkeys this Thanksgiving.

More Travelers Than Ever

For Thanksgiving this year, AAA predicts 37 million Americans will hit the road, which is up one percent over last year. And although it's just a marginal increase, McNaull says, the amount of travelers has never been bigger.

"We're not expecting any kind of letup, which is surprising to some, given the high gas prices," says Justin McNaull, an AAA spokesman.

High domestic airfares -- about 12 percent higher than last year -- didn't deter air travelers either, says Amy Ziff, editor-at-large at Travelocity, an online travel agency. AAA predicts that 4.5 million people will travel by plane this week.

"So many people have returned to travel," Ziff says. "This year, 2005, really marks a decisive travel increase and so we expect that and in fact are seeing that. Thanksgiving weekend is up about 4 to 5 percent increase over last year."

More people are taking nontraditional Thanksgiving vacations this week, too. Ziff says bookings both to Jamaica and to the British Virgin Islands have increased 30 percent compared to last year.

Hitting the Road

If you're stuck in traffic, remember your turkey probably had to travel a further distance to get to your plate than you do to get to your dinner. The average Thanksgiving long-distance trip (anything over 50 miles is considered long-distance) is 214 miles, according to the Department of Transportation. Sixty-five percent of all turkeys raised in the U.S. in 2005 came from Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia, Missouri and California, according to the USDA.

"On Wednesday after lunch, you get the 'get out of town rush' when you combine commuters, holiday travelers, and last-minute turkey shoppers," McNaull says. "If you can, leave earlier or later on Wednesday, or early on Thursday.

"Thanksgiving is the busiest day for long-distance drivers, but it's still a great day to drive because there aren't shoppers, commuters or commercial trucks on the road," he added.

Liz Curry and her boyfriend will drive from Hoboken, N.J., to Washington, D.C., to have Thanksgiving dinner with friends. In hope of missing some of the worst traffic, they plan to leave Hoboken after dinner on Wednesday night -- even though it means they won't make it to Washington before midnight.

"Traffic in New Jersey is bumper-to-bumper on Thanksgiving day and the day before," says Curry, a medical communications professional.

Anyone who hoped for empty roads because of high gas prices will be sorely disappointed. Americans won't trade tradition for a few bucks.

"The reality of Thanksgiving is that you're pretty much compelled to go to grandma's," McNaull says.

Although gas prices have been dropping steadily over the past few weeks, they are still $.32 higher than they were last year at his time.

"I'm not worried about gas prices particularly, since driving will still be cheaper than flying or taking the train," says Curry, who plans to fill her tank in New Jersey where gas prices are cheaper.

Those who do decide to take the train will have plenty of company. Amtrak also expects to carry 125,000 passengers today, on its busiest day of the year. That's 80 percent more than it carries on an average Wednesday. Throughout the Thanksgiving holiday week, 30 percent more passengers will ride Amtrak compared to a typical week. To accommodate the holiday surge, Amtrak will run extra trains, including 60 in the Northeast.

Air Travel

If you're heading to one the nation's top five busiest airports -- Denver, Chicago/ O'Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta or La Guardia -- on the busiest travel day, you'll be happy to learn one piece of good news: You're less likely to incur a cancelled flight, Ziff says.

"Of course, something could happen mechanically, but there are times flights get cancelled because they're not full enough and you're not going to see that during the Thanksgiving week," Ziff says.

But with the winter weather coming in, you can expect plenty of delays. Many major cities are expecting snow.

"If I'm booking my flight for a holiday weekend, I don't like to be on the last flight out, because if there are weather issues or delays, they might not get your flight out," Ziff says.

Friday Traffic

The roads on Friday will be crowded with shoppers heading to the sales. Expect back-ups "around exit ramps and major shopping areas," McNaull says.

Those crowds would have pleased President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1939, he declared that Thanksgiving should always be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, and never on the occasional fifth Thursday, because he wanted to encourage earlier holiday shopping.

Plane, Train and Automobile Tips

Road Trip

McNaul of AAA offers the following recommendations:

The roads will be most crowded on Wednesday afternoon, so try to leave in the morning, that night, or Thursday morning.

It's worth getting you car checked up or at least giving it a mechanical "once over" before you head out on your Thanksgiving trip. Check tires (air pressure and condition/wear), fluid, belts/hoses. AAA will still come get you if you break down on Thanksgiving, but our tow truck drivers would rather be home with their families. And you'll be hard pressed to find an auto tech working on the holiday.

This might be the first time this season you're dealing with winter weather. Build in some extra time in case you'll have to drive slower.

Keep blankets, food and water in your car in case you get stranded in a blizzard.

Flying the Friendly Skies

Ziff of Travelocity suggests the following:

Try to avoid booking the last flight out, because if there are weather problems or delays, that is the one that will be cancelled.

Don't wrap presents -- security may have to unwrap them, even if they are in checked baggage.

Don't check any valuables, and if something is irreplaceable then don't bring it at all.

Leave plenty of time to get to the airport, since the roads may be more crowded than usual. Plan to arrive two hours before your flight so you have enough time to check in and go through security.

Curbside check-in can sometimes be faster because people tend to automatically go inside the terminal.

Riding the Rails

Train routes that don't normally require reservations will do so during this holiday week. All Northeast corridor trains will require reservations, as will Pacific Surfliner trains in Southern California.

Amtrak advises you to arrive at the station at least 45 minutes before departure if tickets need to be picked up.