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Fewer people expected to travel for Christmas

POSTED: January 1, 2009 5:00 a.m.

Despite a dramatic plunge in the price of gasoline, fewer people are traveling this holiday season.

"Nationwide, we’re projecting almost 64 million people will travel at least 50 miles during the Christmas through New Year period," said Gregg Laskoski, spokesman for the Georgia AAA Auto Club South. "That’s a decrease of about 2 percent compared to last year."

Of those who do plan to travel, the vast majority prefer wheels to wings. In a survey, 82 percent said they intend to travel by car, a decrease of 1.2 percent since last year. By contrast, air travel has dropped by more than 8 percent.

"Most people book their flights in advance, and airfares were pretty high several months ago," said Laskoski. "The airlines have gone to great lengths to reduce their number of flights, which creates a disincentive to travel by air. They’ve also tacked on fees which do not ingratiate them to consumers."

In Georgia, AAA is predicting that almost 1.9 million people will travel during this holiday season, including 1.2 million by car, 505,000 by plane, and 125,000 by bus, train or other means.

Laskoski said the number of people traveling by mass transit in Georgia is up almost 1 percent since last year.

Some of those people may have purchased train or bus tickets back in September, when gasoline in Georgia cost more than $4 a gallon.

Today, gas in many parts of Georgia is selling for less than $1.50 a gallon. A year ago, travelers were paying twice as much.

"Fuel is down about $1.50 a gallon from what it was at this time last year," said Laskoski.

Chris Rundell, an agent with Wide Travel in Gainesville, said lower gas prices are making automobile travel more attractive.

"A lot of people are opting to drive rather than fly if it’s within eight hours," she said.

But even with bargain prices on gas, the slumping economy is forcing many people to stay home.

"Gas may be cheaper, but there are other expenses when you travel, such as meals and hotels," said Laskoski.

At Wide Travel, Rundell said people are definitely cutting back. "Holiday travel is off by probably 50 percent," she said. "But we are getting bookings for next year. People seem to be skipping trips this year and hoping the economy will improve later."

Rundell said those who can afford to travel will find the price is right. "There are a lot of good deals out there right now, especially on cruises," she said. "Airlines haven’t dropped any of their fees, but the cruise lines just took off their fuel surcharges."

Wide Travel sells gift certificates that allow the recipient to choose where and when they want to travel. Rundell said these are usually popular Christmas presents. "Last year, we did a lot of gift certificates," she said. "We’re not selling as many this year."

Some people who already made plans to travel this Christmas may have been forced to cancel or delay their trips due to blizzards and ice storms in much of the country over the past week. But Georgians who intend to travel only in the Southeast haven’t had to deal with wintry weather. Though the National Weather Service predicts a chance of rain every day from now through Sunday, no frozen precipitation is expected.

Gordy Wright, spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol, said travelers will probably encounter heavy traffic in some areas, but it won’t be a gridlock situation.

"With Christmas in the middle of the week, traffic is spread out because not everyone is traveling on the same day," he said. "A lot of people were already on the road this past weekend."

Wright said the heaviest traffic may occur on the weekend of Jan. 3-4, "That’s when you’ll see crunch time, because everyone’s trying to get back in time for work Monday."



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