Holiday Travel Ahead Photo: Getty Images/MCCAIG

Plan ahead: Travelers poised to set records this holiday season

Travel times in the most congested cities in the U.S. could be as much as four times longer than a normal trip.

AAA forecasts that more than one-third of Americans will travel this holiday season. The record-breaking 112.5 million travelers taking to the nation's highways, runways, and rails for the year-end holidays represents a 4.4% increase over last year and the most since AAA has been tracking holiday travel.

For the more than 102 million people who will pack up their cars for a holiday road trip, INRIX, a global mobility analytics company, predicts travel times in the most congested cities in the U.S. could be as much as four times longer than a normal trip.

"'Tis the season for holiday travel, and more Americans than ever will journey to spend time with friends and family or choose to take a vacation," said Bryan Shilling, managing director of AAA Travel products and services. "Strong economic growth fueled by robust consumer spending continues to drive strong demand for seasonal travel. With a record-breaking one-third of the country choosing to travel this holiday, roadways and airports are sure to be busy."

The year-end holiday travel period is defined as Saturday, Dec. 22, through Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. The 11-day span is one day longer than last year, due to Christmas and New Year's Day falling on Tuesdays.

By the Numbers: 2018 Year-End Holiday Travel Forecast

Automobiles: More Americans will travel by car this holiday season than ever before. The 102.1 million people expected to pack up their cars for road trips is 4.4% higher than last year. It is the most since AAA began tracking holiday travel in 2001.

Planes: The 6.7 million people who will travel by air this year is the highest level since in 15 years and is 4.2% more than last year.

Trains, Buses and Cruise Ships: Travel across these sectors will increase by 4%, with a total 3.7 million passengers.

Holiday Hotspots

Based on historical and recent travel trends, INRIX expects drivers to experience the greatest amount of congestion before the holiday week – starting on Wednesday, Dec. 19 – as commuters and holiday travelers mix on our nation's busiest roadways. Drivers in Atlanta, New York City, Boston and Houston will see travel times more than three times a normal trip.

"With a record-level number of travelers hitting the road this holiday, drivers must be prepared for delays in major metro areas – with Thursday, Dec. 20 being the nation's worst day to travel," says Trevor Reed, transportation analyst at INRIX. "Our advice is to avoid traveling during peak commuting hours. If schedules allow, leave bright and early, or after the morning commute."

Falling Gas Prices Motivating More Holiday Travelers to Drive

While gas has been relatively expensive throughout this year, a recent drop to the cheapest national gas price averages of the year, combined with rising disposable income, is motivating more Americans to hit the road this holiday season. Gas prices averaged $2.46 for the first week of December, which is two cents per gallon less than one year ago.

Car Rental Costs Reach 10-Year High, Hotel Prices Mixed

Holiday road trippers should budget slightly more for a rental car this year, as daily rates have increased 3% over last year. At $76, the daily average car rental rate this holiday season is the most expensive in 10 years. Travelers will also pay a bit more at AAA Two Diamond hotels, where prices are 1% more than last year, or $122 per night. Conversely, the average rate for AAA Three Diamond hotels has fallen 3% to an average nightly cost of $152.

Top 10 Year-End Travel Destinations

Warm-weather destinations are top draws in the winter months, occupying nine of the top 10 spots on the list of most popular holiday destinations, based on AAA's online and travel agency air and tour bookings. The major cruise ports of Fort Lauderdale and Miami have both gained in popularity compared with last year, on the heels of a strong year for cruise sales. Meanwhile, New York City, the only cold-weather destination to make the top 10, can also expect a growing influx of travelers this holiday season.

  • Orlando, Florida
  • Cancun, Mexico
  • Anaheim, California (Disneyland)
  • Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
  • Montego Bay, Jamaica
  • Honolulu, Hawaii
  • New York, New York
  • Kahului, Hawaii (Maui)
  • Fort Lauderdale, Florida
  • Miami, Florida

AAA to Rescue More Than 960,000 Motorists

AAA expects to rescue more than 960,000 motorists at the roadside this year-end holiday period. Dead batteries, lockouts and flat tires will be the leading reasons AAA members will experience car trouble.

AAA recommends motorists take their vehicle to a trusted repair facility to perform any needed maintenance before heading out. Oil changes, fluid level checks, battery tests and tire inspections go a long way toward reducing the chances of a breakdown.

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 46% of all crashes involving bad weather take place in the winter. AAA encourages drivers to be vigilant when hitting the road this winter and to always stay prepared by carrying an emergency roadside kit containing a mobile phone and car charger, first-aid kit, blankets, drinking water and snacks, a flashlight with extra batteries, a basic toolkit, warning flares, an ice scraper, jumper cables and a shovel.

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