Americans consider economy in Thanksgiving travel plans

The Miles family is changing it up this year in the annual American race to make it to the table for Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of booking plane tickets, they opted to take the 1,100-mile trip by train.

Airline tickets seemed too pricey, so they paid $800 for the five of them to travel roundtrip by train from their Syracuse, N.Y., home to Omaha, Neb. to see family. Airfare would have totaled more than $2,500, the family said.

“Economic considerations topped the list for us,” Maureen Miles, 44, a doctor’s office receptionist, said sitting with her husband and three kids at a crowded Union Station in Chicago before their train departed Tuesday afternoon.

“If the price was right, we would have considered flying,” she said.

With economic pressures still hitting household budgets hard, many Americans are forgoing air travel for the Thanksgiving holiday and opting for cheaper alternatives. Others are staying home completely — partly to avoid traffic and airport lines, partly to save a buck.

Thanksgiving travel plummeted a staggering 25 percent between 2007 and 2008, and many of those habits seem to be sticking this year. The number of people traveling is likely to stay about the same, inching up only by about 1.4 percent, according to an AAA prediction based on a survey of 1,300 households.

About 38 million domestic travelers are expected to go somewhere this holiday — a far cry from the roughly 58 million who made holiday journeys in 2005 when the economy was better.

Traveling for Thanksgiving at any cost was too much for Julie Bennink, 26, who works in public relations in Chicago. Unexpected medical and other bills meant she couldn’t afford paying what would have been at least $400 for a rental car and gas to drive the three hours to Grand Rapids, Mich., for Thanksgiving dinner with her family.

“My mom was not really thrilled with me when I told her,” Bennink said.

Her plan B for Thanksgiving was to take a 15-minute city bus ride to a friend’s house and bring a cornbread casserole.

Most people have calculated that travel by car often makes the most financial sense, said Alan Pisarski, a leading transportation analyst. About 33 million people are expected to travel by car this Thanksgiving, according to AAA.

That was how travelers who stopped at a service plaza along Florida’s Turnpike to stretch their legs under palm trees saw it.

Sarah Vaughan of Key West stopped at the rest area with her fiance and their three dogs, including their handicapped Rottweiler named Chief, on their way to Ocala to visit family. Flying wasn’t an option.

“I haven’t flown since 1998,” she said. “No money, no time. When you live and work in paradise, you’re short on both of those things.”

That’s not the kind of thing airlines want to hear.

Carriers had been counting on holiday travelers more than usual because travel has been so weak the rest of the year, said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Hunter Keay. The AAA predicts there will be a 6.7 percent decrease in air travelers this holiday compared with last year.

That doesn’t mean fewer sardine-packed planes. Carriers have cut the number of aircraft in service, ensuring full planes. And with extra fees to check baggage on most carriers, many travelers are likely to bring as much as they can on board. So add battles for overhead compartment space to the list of potential aggravations.

Some travelers were lured to fly at the last minute by airline bargains. Danny Cruz, 30, a bookstore employee from Atlanta, was facing a holiday apart from her mom who lives in Orlando because airfares were too high. But they took to the Internet and scored a last-minute deal — from airlines scrambling to sell open seats.

“Suddenly one day it went from almost $400 to almost half the price,” Cruz said.

So far, air travelers found quick lines and little aggravation. The world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is bracing for a rush of 1.7 million holiday travelers — in line with the holiday period last year, its general manager, Ben DeCosta, said.

Matthew Paulk, a student from New York City, said he braced for the worst before he arrived at the Atlanta airport.

“I expected it to be hectic — people losing their bags, tripping, dropping stuff, arguments,” he said. “But it was really good. It wasn’t what I expected.”

Maureen Miles said her family may not be among those switching back to planes once the economy starts improving — and not only because travel by train is easier on their pocketbook. Her kids, she said, have enjoyed the chance to get a good look at America beyond New York at a train’s pace.

“Money aside,” she said, “traveling by train is an adventure.”

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AP Airlines Writer Joshua Freed in Minneapolis, AP Writers Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee, James Irwin in Detroit, Tamara Lush in Pompano Beach, Fla., and Videojournalist Mark Carlson in Chicago also contributed to this report.

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