In its annual Thanksgiving travel forecast released Tuesday, AAA predicts 43.6 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home over the holiday, up just 0.7 percent from last year. That compares with healthier growth of 8 and 6 percent, respectively, in the last two years. Thanksgiving travel fell by 25 percent in 2008, the first full holiday season after the recession began.
A dramatic drop in gas prices should help holiday travel. The national average has declined 35 cents per gallon in the last month. AAA expects further declines through the holiday, although the price of gas on Thanksgiving Day should be close to last year's record of $3.32 per gallon.
But AAA says that a stronger economy is needed to spur a bigger jump in holiday travel growth. The auto club believes that trips will average 588 miles this year, down from 706 miles a year earlier. That's partly because AAA expects the number of air travelers over Thanksgiving to decline. But it also reflects a continued focus on saving money.
"Despite mild improvements in unemployment, the housing market and greater consumer optimism, the economy is still struggling to keep its head above water," AAA said in its forecast.
The main trade group for U.S. airlines expects a mild increase in flying over Thanksgiving, although it uses a 12-day period. AAA defines the Thanksgiving holiday travel period as Wednesday, Nov. 21 to Sunday, Nov. 25.
The forecast, which is produced from a combination of a traveler survey and economic analysis, was done before Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast. AAA said it doesn't yet know the full impact the storm will have on travel in the Mid-Atlantic region, but it expects it will be significant.