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Heavy traffic passes this fuel station in the 5000 block of Hixson Pike on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

FAST FACTS

Christmas Day gas prices
2015 / 2016 / 2017
National: $2 / $2.29 / $2.44

Tennessee: $1.77 / $2.09 / $2.23

Since AAA started keeping travel figures in 2001, records show Tennessee’s:
Highest gas price was $4.118 on Sept. 15, 2008

Highest diesel price was $4.735 on July 17, 2008

In Chattanooga:
Highest gas price was $3.978 on Sept. 18, 2008

Highest diesel price was $4.758 on July 17, 2008

Source: AAA

An ongoing decline in gas prices and a good economy are conspiring to boost travel to a record high for the season with as many as 102 million people — about one-third of the nation - hitting the road for the holidays, according to national travel and fuel analysts.

"Holiday travelers will have more jingle in their pockets after they fill-up the family vehicle," Mark Jenkins, spokesman for AAA — The Auto Club Group, said in a statement. "Prices are already at two-year lows for the holidays, and should slip even lower in the next two weeks."

PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES

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 percent higher than last year, 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 in 15 years and is 4.2 percent more than last year.

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

Source: AAA

AAA predicts that Thursday will be the worst holiday travel day in the nation. A total of 112.5 million people are expected to travel for the holidays either by car, rail or air. That's up about 5 million from last year.

"Oil prices have been unable to gain significant upward momentum after OPEC announced plans to cut production," Jenkins said. "The price of crude declined last week and should drop again this week, because industry analysts are skeptical that OPEC's plan could rebalance what is currently an oversupplied market. If oil prices drop even further this week, that would reduce the cost of producing gasoline and allow additional price cuts at the pump."

Thanksgiving 2018 also was a record-setter with the most travelers taking the road since 2005.

FUEL PRICE DROP

AAA says gas prices in Tennessee dropped another 5 cents last week — about 11 cents a gallon lower than Christmas 2017 — for a statewide average of $2.12.

"It's possible the state average could reach $2 per gallon before the end of the year, unless oil prices rise," said Stephanie Milani, AAA's spokeswoman in Tennessee. "Compared to last summer, drivers in Tennessee are now saving nearly $10 on a full tank of gas."

Gas prices in the Chattanooga area are among the lowest in the state — and in the nation — with regular going for as little as $1.95 a gallon or less in Chattanooga and $2 and $2.05 in Cleveland and Knoxville, respectively, according to AAA. Tennessee's highest prices are found in Nashville and Johnson City, with $2.22, and around Kingsport-Bristol, $2.18.

GasBuddy, the Boston-based fuel price tracker, predicts continued price declines.

"Crude price supports collapsed [Monday] with [West Texas Intermediate oil, a benchmark in oil prices], dropping $1.32 to $49.88, its lowest posting since Sept 13, 2017, while its European counterpart, Dated Brent, fell 67 cents to end the trading session at $59.61 a barrel," GasBuddy blogger Dan McTeague wrote Tuesday.

The decline surpassed $1 a barrel in Tuesday's early trading, he said.

"Drivers, on the other hand, continue to earn the continued benefits of two months of declines in overall petroleum prices," McTeague said. "[M]edian pump prices are down 4.3 cents compared to last week, 22.8 cents lower than last month and now 4.1 cents cheaper than on this same day in 2017."

HITTING THE ROAD

AAA predicts 4.4-percent more people will travel by car than last year, marking the most since the travel club began tracking holiday travel in 2001.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Department of Transportation is slamming the brakes on most construction, so there will no temporary lane closures between Dec. 21 and Jan. 2 to keep traffic — numbering up to 2.5 million in Tennessee — flowing as smoothly as possible, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn.

Flynn said that except for a few long-term closures that must remain in place for safety, all construction-related closures will be suspended during the holiday period, although workers may still be on site in some construction zones.

"With over two million drivers expected to travel Tennessee roadways during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, keeping traffic moving and getting motorists to their destinations safely is our top priority," TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said in a statement, reminding drivers to wear seat belts, avoid distractions and alcohol.

Drivers should obey all posted speed limits, particularly in construction areas, Flynn said. Drivers convicted of speeding through work zones where workers are present face a fine of $250 to $500.

WINGING IT

AAA says falling gas prices could inspire more people to drive for the holidays, though the nation's largest airports will be plenty busy. About 6.7 million people will travel by air for the holidays this year, the highest mark in 15 years and 4.2 percent more than last year.

AAA's flight booking data from the last three years shows most holiday air travelers depart two or three days before Christmas and return the day after. This holiday season, Saturday, Dec. 22, Sunday, Dec. 23 and Wednesday, Dec. 26 will be the busiest days in the skies and at the airports.

Fewer people choose to fly on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, which are the lightest travel days around the Christmas holiday, AAA says, and most people planned ahead this year.

HOLIDAY FORECAST

Thursday
Rain with accumulations of one to two inches
High: 50
Low: 43

Friday
Rain continuing with lighter accumulations
High: 45
Low: 30

Saturday
Partly cloudy
High: 50
Low: 35

Sunday
Mix of clouds and sun, late chance of rain
High: 50
Low: 30

Monday
Partly cloudy
High: 51
Low: 29

Christmas Day
Partly cloudy with 10 percent chance of rain
High: 52
Low: 38-40

Source: WRCB-TV Channel 3

 

Most travelers booked their Christmas flights between Oct. 26 and Nov. 27, paying an average ticket price of $561 roundtrip, but last-minute travelers who book between Dec. 12-18 this year can expect to pay the lowest average airfares, at $488. Late planners run the risk of limited ticket availability and sold-out preferred flights.

The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport won't see a dramatic increase in traffic for the holiday, as the facility's primary customers are business travelers, but it's a good idea to check on parking availability, spokesman Albert Waterhouse said in an email.

"We also ask that passengers consider alternative transportation like taxis, ride-sharing, carpooling and our bus and shuttle," Waterhouse said.

TRAVEL WEATHER

The National Weather Service says most of the country can count out a white Christmas — defined as one inch of snow on Christmas morning — while travelers across the South can figure on rain heading into the weekend before the Christmas holiday. Thursday's rainy weather and heavy holiday traffic are the major reasons for AAA predictions for the day as the worst across the country for holiday travel.

Locally, WRCB-TV Channel 3 meteorologist Brittany Beggs said travel weather in the Chattanooga region will be at its worst over the next two days.

"The biggest impact is going to be on [Thursday] and Friday, Friday especially," Beggs said. On Thursday, "we're expecting one to two inches of rain.

"That starts up in the morning and it looks like it'll be picking up and becoming pretty widespread in the afternoon," she said.

"We're still going to have rain ongoing Friday morning, but we've got some cold air moving in during the day so there's a small window from about 1 p.m. until about 6 p.m. where we could see a little bit of a mix developing."

She said windy conditions Friday might help dry things out.

Weekend weather will be much better.

"We're seeing mainly dry conditions both Saturday and Sunday with highs near 50," she said. "A very small rain chance comes on Sunday, but I think most of us will just see a few clouds."

Christmas Day should be partly cloudy and dry with a 10 percent chance of rain late, she said, noting the forecast that far out will almost certainly change, so check for the latest updates.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

CURRENT AND PAST AVERAGE FUEL PRICES

Location / Sunday / Last year / 2018 high / Record high
National: $2.378 / $2.434 / $2.97 (5/26/18) / $4.11 (7/17/08)

Tennessee: $2.124 / $2.227 / $2.73 (5/27/18) / $4.12 (9/15/18)

Georgia: $2.184 / $2.297 / $2.84 (5/27/18) / $4.16 (9/15/18)

Alabama: $2.039 / $2.174 / data unavailable / $4.052 (9/16/08)

Florida: $2.295 / $2.381 / $2.92 (5/25/18) / $4.08 (7/17/08)

Source: AAA

Lowest Gas Prices in Chattanooga
Chattanooga Gas Prices provided by GasBuddy.com
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