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Holiday Travel Expected to Be Up 1.4%

Volume will be second highest in 10 years, AAA says

ORLANDO, Fla. AAA forecasts 91.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the 2011-12 yearend holiday travel season, a 1.4% increase over the 90.7 million people who traveled one year ago. This year’s expected yearend holiday travel volume is the second highest in the past decade and represents 30% of the total U.S. population.

The 11-day yearend holiday period is the longest holiday travel season of the year, affording many more Americans time to visit family or take vacations.

AAA defines the yearend holiday travel season as Friday, December 23, 2011, to Monday, January 2, 2012.

“It’s a positive sign for the travel industry that so many Americans are planning to travel this holiday season, collectively contributing to the second-highest yearend holiday travel volume in the past 10 years,” said Bill Sutherland, vice president of AAA Travel Services.

Economic improvements are continuing at a very slow pace, and consumer surveys show active concern and pessimism over that pace. The measure of economic activity, real gross domestic product (GDP), is expected to increase for the fourth quarter of 2011 by 1.5% compared to the fourth quarter of 2010. While 1.5% growth is still slow, it is a slight increase over the expected 1.3% fourth quarter growth predicted only one month ago, and the primary factor expected to drive this year’s modest increase in expected yearend holiday travel.

While pent-up demand was projected to inspire significant Thanksgiving holiday travel growth this year, holiday travel at the end of the year is less cyclical, so pent-up demand has less effect. Travel during the yearend holiday period did not see the dramatic drop in travel following the 2008 recession that other holiday periods experienced. The 2008-09 yearend holiday travel volume of 85.7 million was only 8.5% less than the 93.7 million yearend holiday travel during the 2006-07 peak. Yearend holiday travel has grown each year since 2008-09; 89.5 million in 2009-10; 90.7 million in 2010-11; 91.9 million this year.

And 59% of intending travelers believe that the economy has either no impact on their travel plans or they believe that things have improved for them. The remaining 41% state an intention to scale back travel plans due to economic concerns. Last year, 67% of intending travelers stated that their travel plans were not impacted by the economic conditions at that time. Given current economic conditions, a majority of travelers reporting no economic impact on their travel plans is a positive sign for the travel industry and another reminder of just how important traveling is to Americans.

Approximately 83.6 million people (91% of holiday travelers) plan to take to the nation’s roadways this yearend holiday travel season, a 2.1% increase compared to 2010-11 when the number of auto travelers totaled 81.9 million. This year’s projected automobile travel volume is the second highest in the past decade and only 100,000 less than the 2006-07 auto travel peak of 83.7 million. Automobile travel remains the preferred choice of transportation for 2011-12 yearend holiday travelers as nearly 27% of the total U.S. population will hit the road.

The current national average price for regular unleaded gasoline is approximately $3.26 per gallon, about 29 cents more than one year ago; however, the national average price is about 72 cents less than this year’s peak price of $3.98 on May 5.

About 5.4 million leisure travelers (6% of holiday travelers) will fly during the yearend holiday travel period, a 9.7% decrease from 2010-11. This year’s air travel volume is the seventh lowest in the past 10 years as nearly two million fewer yearend holiday travelers are expected to fly than did during the decade’s air travel peak in 2002-03.

Other modes of travel (bus, trains, watercraft, multi-modal travel) will make up the remaining 3% of the total person-trips, with 2.9 million people expected to travel by these modes, 4.2% higher than 2010-11. Economic conditions are dictating that some Americans that otherwise might travel by air or automobile are traveling by these alternative modes of transportation.

According to a survey of traveler intentions, the average distance traveled by Americans during the yearend holiday travel season is expected to be 726 miles, a decline from 2010-11 when travelers planned to log an average of 1,052 miles. Propelling the reduction in expected travel miles is the 9.7% decline in air travel and indications that many air travelers are choosing shorter-distance flights. The percentage of expected trips with a round trip distance above 1,500 miles decreased from 23% last year to 17% this year.

Median spending is expected to be $718, which is a 3% increase from $694 last year. Fuel and transportation costs combine to consume the largest share of holiday spending (32%), followed by shopping and food and beverages (tied at 19%). Other expenditures include accommodations (15%), entertainment and recreation (12%) and other costs (4%).

AAA’s projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Global Insight.

To view the complete AAA/IHS Global Insight 2011-12 Yearend Holiday Travel Forecast, including charts and regional breakdowns, click here.

AAA provides more than 53 million members with travel, insurance, financial and automotive-related services.