Holiday travel expected to surpass last year, inch closer to pre-COVID levels

More people will be hitting the road and taking to the skies, rails or seas in the coming days as holiday travel inches back to pre-COVID levels.

AAA estimates 112.7 million people will journey 50 miles or more away from home for the holiday season, which will be Dec. 23 to Jan. 2. That’s an increase of 3.6 million people over last year.

“Travel has been making a big, big comeback throughout the year, starting with our forecast in May, the Memorial Day forecast,” said AAA Club Alliance spokeswoman Kara Hitchens “People are ready to get back together with family and friends.”

2022 is expected to be the third busiest year for holiday travel since AAA began tracking in 2000.

Ohio is projected to have more than 4.6 million total travelers, up 2.6% over last year, Hitchens said. Automobile travel will be at nearly 4.2 million, up 1.4% compared to last year, and air travel will be at 238,000, up 12.8% compared to last year, she said.

Closer to home, the Dayton metro area, which includes Montgomery, Miami, Greene and Preble counties, is projected to have 341,753 total travelers, up 3.3% over last year, according to AAA. Automobile travel will be at 310,995 travelers, up 2.1% compared to last year, and air travel will be at 11,107 travelers, up 13.5% compared to last year, AAA said.

This year, the holiday travel season will be extended due to Christmas and New Year’s Day falling on Sundays, Hitchens said. A workforce now accustomed to hybrid work schedules also will mean more people taking long weekends to travel because they can work remotely at their destination and be more flexible with the days they depart and return, according to AAA.

Nearly 102 million Americans will drive to their holiday destinations. Despite roller-coaster gas prices in 2022, this holiday season will see an additional 2 million drivers compared to 2021. Travel by car this year is on par with 2018 but shy of 2019 when 108 million Americans drove out of town for the holidays, the highest year on record.

“That’s a nice Christmas gift to drivers that gas prices are coming back down,” Hitchens said. “We expect that that’s really going to impact the number of people out there.”

Falling gas prices probably have a little bit more room to fall, according to Patrick De Haan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy, a tech company that operates apps and websites based on finding real-time fuel prices at gas stations.

Stations in the Dayton area could drop another 20 cents a gallon over the next week or two, “maybe 30. If we’re lucky,” De Haan said.

“We’re probably in the seventh inning stretch of the downturn,” De Haan said. After dropping as low as $71 a barrel Dec. 9, oil prices have gone back up. reaching $77 on Wednesday before dipping to $74 on Friday.

That will probably mean the price declines will slow down in the next week or two, but not go back up, De Haan said.

As of Friday, the average price for gallon of unleaded gas was 14 cents lower than it was a year ago nationwide, 10 cents lower in Dayton, 20 cents lower in Springfield and 15 cents higher in Cincinnati.

Not all travelers will be driving to their destination this holiday season. AAA projects that air travel will see a 14% increase over last year, with nearly 7.2 million Americans expected to fly.

The number of people taking holiday flights this year will come close to matching 2019 when 7.3 million Americans traveled by air, AAA said. That means flights and airports will be packed this holiday season, reminiscent of pre-pandemic days, it said.

Demand for flights has surged despite more expensive airline ticket prices.

“Air fares are still up a bit, but ... airlines have been doing their best to bring things back to normal in terms of increasing their staff ... maybe reducing some of their flights so that the flights that they do have out there are, people can can rely on them more,” Hitchens said. “There were a lot of cancellations a lot of delays because of staffing issues.

“They’ve tightened their belt to make air travel much more pleasurable through the holidays.”

Other modes of transportation are also bouncing back in a big way, according to AAA, which estimates travel by train, bus and cruise ship will rise to 3.6 million this holiday season, a 23% increase from last year and nearly 94% of 2019′s volume.

No matter how travelers get to their destination, AAA says the best time to travel is this Friday before 2 p.m., while the worst time to travel is this Friday after 4 p.m.

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