An economic barometer

An economic barometer

November 18th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The Thanksgiving holiday travel period generally is the heaviest of the year in the United States. As such, the number of Americans who take to the roads, air and rails during the period is viewed by many as a handy and fairly reliable indicator of how the U.S. economy is faring as the year begins to wind down. If projections for the current holiday season prove true, then the U.S. economy would seem to be in somewhat better shape now than it was at the same time last year.

The AAA, the country's biggest motoring and leisure travel organization, predicts that about 42.5 million Americans will travel 50 or more miles from home during the holiday travel weekend. That's a four percent increase over the 40.9 million who traveled a year ago. More importantly, from the economic standpoint, the increase is first of any significance for any holiday travel in 2011.

Memorial Day, for example, saw no increase over last year in vacations, and travel for both the July 4th and Labor Day holidays was down from the previous year. The projected increase suggests, at the least, that Americans are a bit more confident about the economy and therefore are willing to spend hard-earned money to visit friends and family. That, no doubt, should please the travel industry, which has seen business volumes remain below-- far below, in many instances -- historical averages since 2008.

Though the Thanksgiving holiday travel period is traditionally defined as Wednesday through Sunday, Nov. 27, many Americans start their holiday trips earlier. Some airlines report heavier than usual passenger loads this weekend. There's also anecdotal evidence, some travel trackers say, that growing numbers of families start their trips on Sunday or Monday to avoid the Tuesday-Wednesday rush prior to Thanksgiving Day. Whatever the mode of transportation, Americans will pay more for it this year than last.

About 38.2 million people -- 90 percent of those traveling on the holiday -- will drive to their destinations. They will pay about $3.42 per gallon for gas -- the average price so far in November. That's an increase of about 20 percent over last year, but lower than this year's average peak price of $3.98, recorded in late spring. There are similar price increases -- about 20 percent per ticket -- in store for the 3.4 million people who will travel by air. The price increases might not sit well with travelers, but they appear more willing to pay them than they were in the last couple of years.

The increase in the number of Thanksgiving holiday travelers, while welcome, is somewhat a mixed blessing. It's certainly good news for the travel industry and for communities like Chattanooga that are heavily involved in travel and tourism. It's a boon, too, for an economy that needs such positive growth, small as it might be, to maintain positive momentum.

For those who will cope with the inevitable gridlock on some roads, full cars on the rails and crowded airports and planes in the next 10 days, the projection of more holiday travel is probably more scary than anything else. The best advice, travel professionals say, is to leave early, stay cool and to have a grand time when you reach your destination. That is sound counsel.