Holiday travel expected to rise despite COVID concerns, gas prices

Despite recent health warning, AAA poll shows COVID worries have dropped dramatically in Ohio

Thanksgiving travel is projected to rise this year in Ohio, as many people’s COVID worries have subsided, but gas prices will hurt because the national average price is near an all-time Thanksgiving high.

Nearly 2.17 million Ohioans are projected to take to the roads and skies over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, an increase of more than 13% from last year.

That’s according to AAA, which said it projects the fourth-highest number of Thanksgiving travelers since AAA started reporting data. AAA defines the Thanksgiving holiday as the period from Nov. 24 to Nov. 29.

The dramatic bounce-back in travel compared to last year is in keeping with the findings of a new AAA poll of Ohio residents. Only 7% feel traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday poses a “significant” risk for COVID. That’s a contrast to a similar poll last year where more than 34% felt holiday travel posed such a risk.

But local health officials last week urged people to take extra care with holiday gatherings, because COVID cases and hospitalizations have been rising for weeks. They urged people to get vaccinated, wear masks in crowded indoor settings and stay away from people if they have symptoms.

“Travel and social gatherings can play a leading role in COVID-19 transmission if proper precautions are not taken,” read a statement from the West Central Ohio Region of Public Health.

Still, Kara Hitchens, spokeswoman for AAA Miami Valley, said the data shows many travelers put COVID in the rear view mirror.

“What we’re seeing are numbers that are back to pre-pandemic levels,” Hitchens said. “Both air travel and automobile travel is just 5 percent shy of what it was in 2019. And 2019 was the fourth most-traveled Thanksgiving holiday, so we see folks that are really ready to get back out there, ready to get together with family and friends for the holiday.”

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As a result, travelers should expect — and plan for — both the roadways and airports to be as busy as ever, Hitchens said.

The vast majority of travelers will be driving to their holiday destinations. AAA projects that the number of Ohioans driving (1.9 million) will be up almost 8% over last year, but still nearly 6% below auto travel for Thanksgiving 2019. In the Miami Valley, AAA is projecting a 14% increase in driving over 2020.

National projections vary

Nationally, Thanksgiving travel is actually projected to be down this year, according to GasBuddy, which tracks gas prices. Their annual Thanksgiving Travel Survey showed 32% of Americans plan to hit the road for Thanksgiving. That’s a slight dip from the 35% who planned to do so last year, and way below the 65% who planned to do so for Thanksgiving 2019.

But AAA predicted that 53.4 million people nationwide will travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, up 13% from 2020, with 90% taking to the roads. Although that is the biggest year-over-year increase in Thanksgiving travel since 2005, the overall travel volume still lags 2019 by about 5%, or about 6.5% in Ohio, according to AAA.

The national gas price average on Friday was $3.41, an increase of $1.30 per gallon over the same date a year ago. Ohio’s gas price average on Friday was $3.24, an increase of $1.32 per gallon over last year.

“Similarly to last year, motorists are contending with a rise in COVID cases ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday when many drive to celebrate with friends and family,” said Patrick De Haan, GasBuddy’s head of petroleum analysis. “Only this year, we’re also just cents away from the highest Thanksgiving gas prices ever recorded.”

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If oil prices surge, national gas prices could potentially exceed the $3.44-per-gallon Thanksgiving record set in 2012.

Seventy-five percent of Americans say that COVID-19 has had no impact on their holiday plans this year, up substantially from last year’s 46%, according to the GasBuddy survey. But 50 percent of those surveyed said they are driving less overall this year, and when asked what it would take for them to drive more, a whopping 78% said lower gas prices.

Cindy Antrican, spokeswoman for AAA Miami Valley, said she didn’t anticipate the price of gas would prevent families from sharing a meal and celebrating Thanksgiving together.

“Depending on the family’s particular budget, they will likely look to find savings in another area in order to afford the visit.”

That, AAA said, includes adjusting their budgets to spend less on other expenses such as meals or lodging. But its poll of Ohio residents found that more than a third (32%) of those not driving a significant distance for the holiday, said that gas prices did play a role in that decision.

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AAA projects that nearly 42,000 Ohioans will trek by bus, train or some other mode of transportation over the holiday weekend, a jump of almost 263% over last year when travel in a group setting was as low as it has been since AAA has been keeping record. But, this year’s numbers are still 29% below 2019.



Air travel is expected to almost completely recover from its precipitous plummet during the pandemic, up 80% nationally over last year, 81.5% in Ohio, and 83% in the Dayton area, with 193,330 Ohioans expected to take to the skies.

Airlines are responding to rising demand by increasing schedules and adding more staff, but travelers should still be prepared for delays or cancellations, AAA said.

Ohioans' projected Thanksgiving travel
Travel methodTotal travelers% of population
All combined2.168,00018.50%
SOURCE: AAA of Miami Valley
Dayton area projected Thanksgiving travel
Travel methodTotal travelers% of population
All combined159,51618.80%
SOURCE: AAA of Miami Valley

2021 Top Thanksgiving Destinations

U.S Destinations

  1. Orlando, Florida
  2. Anaheim, California
  3. Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas
  4. Phoenix, Arizona
  5. Honolulu, Hawaii
  6. Kahului, Maui, Hawaii
  7. Atlanta, Georgia
  8. Tampa, Florida
  9. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

International Destinations

  1. Cancun, Mexico
  2. Montego Bay, Jamaica
  3. Aruba
  4. Los Cabos, Mexico
  5. Nassau, Bahamas
  6. St. Lucia, West Indies
  7. Dublin, Ireland
  8. (tie) Tel Aviv, Israel and Calgary, Canada
  9. Paris, France


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