A booming economy, declining gas prices and growing household wealth could fuel one of the biggest Thanksgiving travel holidays in more than a decade.
More than 54 million Americans — the most since 2005 — are expected to travel 50 miles or more this holiday, representing a 4.8 percent increase over 2017, according to auto club AAA. It's been a dozen years since the volume of travelers has been as high, with 2.5 million more people hitting the roads, skies, rails and waterways this year than last year, AAA said.
"Consumers have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season: higher wages, more disposable income and rising levels of household wealth," said Bill Sutherland, AAA Travel senior vice president. "This is translating into more travelers kicking off the holiday season with a Thanksgiving getaway, building on a positive year for the travel industry."
A predicted 1.2 million Tennesseans will travel for the holiday, a 4.8 percent increase over 2017, with 1.18 million of them going by car, a 5.1 percent increase; 39,000 Tennesseans will fly, a 4.9 percent increase; and 14,000 will go by trains, buses or cruise ships, an increase of 0.2 percent, said Stephanie Milani, AAA Tennessee public affairs director.
Higher gas prices than last year won't keep anyone at home, AAA says, though the national average of $2.79 a gallon is 31 cents higher than a year ago.
Boston-based fuel price tracker GasBuddy says motorists can expect prices to dip as Thanksgiving approaches.
In Chattanooga, where gas prices typically are lower than much of the U.S., the average price a month ago of about $2.58 a gallon declined to around $2.35 a week ahead of the holiday.
GasBuddy blogger Dan McTeague said a dramatic decline in crude oil futures on Nov. 12 was the largest single-day drop in seven years. That's good news for holiday travelers.
"While pump prices remain sticky, an inevitable drop in gas prices [is] in the offing and a net 10-cent a gallon drop is possible before Americans take to the roads for a Thanksgiving in which the cost of filling up will be as cheap, if not cheaper than, the days leading up to the holiday," McTeague wrote in his blog last Tuesday.
TRAVELING IN TENNESSEE
The Tennessee Department of Transportation offers travelers live information on construction activity, crashes and traffic backups at its website, www.TNSmartWay.com/Traffic. Travelers also can dial 511 from any landline or cellphone for travel information, or follow the state agency on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TN511. Drivers should never tweet, text or talk on a cell phone while behind the wheel, and using handheld devices while driving is illegal in Georgia.
Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation
In most cases, the best days to hit the road will be on Thanksgiving Day, Friday or Saturday, AAA said, and drivers should expect increased travel times on Sunday as most people head home after the long holiday weekend.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation will try to smooth travel through the Volunteer State by halting all closure activity on interstates and state highways starting Wednesday at noon and continuing through 6 a.m. Monday, Nov. 26, spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said.
TDOT's regional HELP truck drivers also will be working throughout the holiday weekend assisting with incidents and helping travelers with flat tires and empty gas tanks, Flynn said, adding a reminder for drivers to obey the posted speed limit, especially in work zones.
"While all lane closure activity will be stopped, workers may be on site in some construction zones," she said. "Long-term lane closures will also remain in place on some construction projects for motorists' safety."
PLANE TICKET PRICES
Day/Ticket Price/Expected Crowds
Monday: $465 moderate
Tuesday: $509 heavy
Wednesday: $507 heavy
Thursday: $446 light
Winging it for the holiday? There will be an estimated 4.27 million more air travelers taking flight for Thanksgiving than last year, notching a 5.4 percent year-to-year increase, AAA said.
Across the country, travelers who take to the sky must account for long security lines and increased drive times to the airport, AAA said.
Thanksgiving air travelers don't create crowds at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, but that doesn't mean holiday pressure can't have an impact when flying, facility spokesman Albert Waterhouse said.
"Our passengers are primarily business travelers, so we don't see a big fluctuation in the numbers during any of the holidays," Waterhouse said. "However, we continue to ask that you always check with your air carrier prior to arriving at the airport and flying in or out of Chattanooga."
AAA says an analysis of the last three years' flight booking data shows the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving are usually the most popular air travel days and have the highest average price per round-trip ticket. On the other hand, Thanksgiving day consistently has the lowest average price per ticket and is the lightest travel day. Travelers looking to save money this holiday season can fly the morning of the holiday and arrive just in time for Thanksgiving dinner, according to the auto club.
This could be an especially handy strategy for those who secretly want to avoid Thanksgiving dinner preparations.
High in the upper 50s
Source: WRCB TV Channel 3
Forecasts for sunny skies across the region to start the five-day-long holiday weekend should make for good traveling weather before rain arrives on Friday and Saturday.
"Wednesday will be mostly sunny with highs ranging from 51 to 54 in the Tennessee Valley," WRCB TV Channel 3 meteorologist Alison Pryor said Sunday. "Across the Southeast it will be dry, so travel before Thanksgiving should not be problematic due to weather."
Some cloud cover will develop overnight Wednesday, but skies should clear again for Thanksgiving day, Pryor said. Highs will range from 55 to 60 degrees, locally.
"So Thanksgiving is shaping up to be a beautiful day," Pryor said. "For those traveling, much of the Midwest through eastern U.S. will be dry on Thanksgiving."
Black Friday shoppers will see highs in the low- to mid-50s with a dry start to the day but with rain chances returning Friday afternoon continuing through about noon on Saturday, Pryor said.
"Rain will extend from Illinois and Ohio south to the Gulf Coast, so do be aware of rain showers for traveling Friday evening through Saturday morning," she said.
"The preliminary outlook has Sunday as mostly dry with an isolated chance for a shower. It should be partly sunny with a few clouds, and high temperatures in the upper 50s, locally," Pryor said, noting details that far in the future could change so travelers should check the forecast again later in the week.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.