AAA predicts the heaviest Christmas vacation journey since 2019 by plane, train, or car.
RACINE, KENOSHA COUNTIES — A stronger overall economy and favorable fuel prices are leading to the busiest Christmas holiday travel period since 2019, according to AAA.
The organization is forecasting that 115.2 million travelers will travel 50 miles or more from home between this Saturday (Dec. 23) and Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. That’s a 2.2% increase over last year and the second busiest Christmas-New Year’s Day travel period since 2019 set a record with 119 million travelers. AAA has been tracking holiday travel since 2000.
“This year-end holiday forecast, with an additional 2.5 million travelers compared to last year, mirrors what AAA Travel has been observing throughout 2023,” Paula Twidale, Senior Vice President of AAA Travel, said in a statement. “More Americans are investing in travel, despite the cost, to make memories with loved ones and experience new places.”
An estimated 104 million people will drive to holiday destinations, an increase of 1.8% compared to 2022. That’s also the second highest on record after 2019 when 108 million drivers hit the road. AAA reports that drivers can expect to pay the same or less for a gallon of gas than they did last holiday season when the national average was $3.10 per gallon on Christmas Day and $3.20 on New Year’s Day.
Drivers in the Racine and Kenosha area have seen a drop in fuel prices over the past month.
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AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report for Thursday (Dec. 21) showed the Wisconsin statewide average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline was $2.769 on Thursday, down about 24 cents from a month ago.
Southeastern Wisconsin (Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee counties) had among the lowest gasoline prices in the state as of Thursday. Racine County drivers were seeing an average price of $2.674 per gallon which was down about 30 cents from a month ago and down five cents a gallon from late December 2022.
Fuel price comparison 2019-2023 – Credit: AAA
In Kenosha County, AAA reported the average regular unleaded gas price was $2.702 compared with $3.027 a month earlier and $2.674 a year ago.
Thursday’s national average of $3.12 per gallon was six cents higher than the 2023 average low of $3.06 reached on Dec. 18, AAA reported. That marked the first weekly increase since September.
AAA spokesman Andrew Gross said that daily average gas prices are likely to move back and forth for the next month or so.
INRIX, a provider of transportation data and insights, says there will be several days of potentially heavy traffic during the 10-day holiday period. Three days, in particular, to watch for are this Saturday as well as Thursday, Dec. 28 and Saturday, Dec. 30.
Heavy traffic is expected in most U.S. major metropolitan areas. INRIX analysts recommend hitting the road before lunchtime or after 7 p.m. during the two holiday weekends.
“Nationwide, drivers could see travel times up to 20% longer this holiday season. In major metros, especially in Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC, drivers could experience nearly double the typical delays,” Bob Pishue, an INRIX transportation analyst, said in a news release. “Avoid peak commuting hours and use traffic apps, local DOT notifications, and 511 services to minimize holiday travel traffic frustrations.”
In the Chicago area, Interstate 94 northbound toward Milwaukee is expected to be at its busiest around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 28.
Travelers who choose to fly should be ready for lines at airports. AAA reports that airports are expected to be the busiest they’ve ever been over the Christmas and New Year’s travel period because of an estimated 7.5 million airline passengers. That surpasses 2019’s record of 7.3 million passengers.
AAA also reported that average ticket prices are slightly lower than last year. According to AAA booking data, the average price for a roundtrip ticket to Orlando this holiday season is $613, down from $735 last year. A roundtrip ticket to Las Vegas is $508 now compared to $705 in 2022.
Said AAA’s Twidale: “There are last-minute deals to be found, but if your preference is a nonstop flight with seat selection, AAA recommends booking well in advance and protecting your investment with travel insurance.”
The number of people traveling by other modes, like bus, train and cruise, is also projected to surpass 2019, according to AAA projections. The organization’s forecast calls for more than 4 million travelers to take passenger trains, buses and cruise ships over Christmas and New Year’s compared to 3.66 million in 2022 and 3.89 million in 2019.
Demand for cruises has skyrocketed post-pandemic, and the industry is now preparing for the wave of bookings that traditionally happens at the start of the new year. “Savvy travelers know that right after the holidays is the best time to book a cruise,” Twidale said. “That’s when cruise lines offer some of the best deals, and AAA members get exclusive benefits in addition to those discounts.”
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