Nov. 7, 2012 at 12:51 PM ET
High fares, crowded roads and the lingering effects of Superstorm Sandy and its successors: When it comes to Thanksgiving travel, it’s going to take more than a “perfect storm” of travel hassles to stop Americans from heading to the airport or hitting the road this year.
“If you’re still looking to book airfare, it’s going to be cost-prohibitive and you won’t find many seats,” said Anne Banas, executive editor at SmarterTravel.com. “People who haven’t been able to get flights at an affordable price will end up driving or taking the train.”
Fliers, in particular, should expect plenty of company, says the industry trade group Airlines for America. The group, which released its annual holiday forecast on Wednesday, estimates that 24 million people will fly during the 12-day period between Nov. 16 and Nov. 27.
That’s up by just 150,000 passengers over last year but with continuing capacity cuts, the result has been high load factors — they’re expected to be in the high 80s over the holiday, says A4A — and steadily rising fares. According to Travelocity.com, this year’s average domestic Thanksgiving fare is up 9 percent over last year, to $386.
That, in turn, could prompt more travelers to get behind the wheel, especially as falling gas prices take some of the sting out of driving. On Monday, the national average for regular gas was $3.49 per gallon, down 6 cents from the previous week and 31 cents over the last month.
That’s to be expected, says Gregg Laskoski, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, as overall seasonal demand drops and refineries switch to less-expensive winter blends.
“Despite all the recent chaos, we still see gas prices moving incrementally lower,” he told NBC News. “We could see the average price at $3.30 or $3.25 by the end of the year.”
In the meantime, most travelers are finding that, outside of long gas lines in the Northeast, things are running relatively smoothly. “I flew out of JFK on November 1 and it was easy,” said frequent traveler Maria Ferreras. “There were no lines and no problems.”
In fact, Ferraras brings a unique perspective to traveling during large-scale weather events. A 25-year resident of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, she’s not only lived through several hurricanes but was actually visiting family on Staten Island when Sandy hit.
“We were OK but it was like déjà vu,” she said. “It just gives you an eerie feeling.”
As for Thanksgiving, she was originally planning to return to New York but has since decided to postpone that trip until early December, although not because of the weather. “I’m actually going to be feeding about 50 people so I figured I’d better stay,” she told NBC News.
Others directly impacted by Hurricane Sandy will likely take a similar approach. In Atlantic City, where the storm flooded streets and destroyed parts of the oceanfront boardwalk, it comes as no surprise that would-be travelers are opting to stay close to home.
“People who booked trips to get away are trying to restore their homes and deal with their losses,” said Tom Lipiros, owner of Margate Travel Service. “A few have postponed their plans but most have canceled them.”
As for travel to the area, it appears things are getting back on track even as another storm makes its way toward the Northeast. In Atlantic City, most casinos reopened last weekend and Lipiros reports that there haven’t been many cancellations for the holidays.
Things are also returning to normal in New York, at least in the areas most often frequented by travelers. Most hotels, theaters and attractions in midtown Manhattan are open, although others, primarily in the financial district and outlying boroughs remain closed. (The city’s official tourism organization, NYC & Company, maintains a list here.
“There’s still be more work to be done in the hardest-hit areas of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island but Manhattan, midtown and the Thanksgiving parade will go on,” said Kimberly Spell, chief communication officer for NYC & Co. “New York City is going to be open and fully operational for the holiday.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.