CHICAGO – Millions of Americans got an early jump on their Thanksgiving travel Wednesday, with many opting to drive or take trains and buses instead of shelling out more money for flights amid a sour economy still hitting household budgets hard.
At a Greyhound station in Louisville, Ky., 18-year-old student Cathy Smith waited patiently to catch a bus to spend the holiday with her family in Tennessee. Smith has flown home in the past, but her grandparents — who paid for her bus ticket — ruled that out this year.
"It was the price of the ticket," she said.
Many Americans are forgoing air travel for the Thanksgiving holiday and opting for cheaper alternatives because of economic pressures. Others are staying home completely — partly to avoid traffic and airport lines, partly to save a buck.
Thanksgiving travel plummeted a staggering 25 percent between 2007 and 2008, and many of those habits seem to be sticking this year. The number of people traveling is likely to stay about the same, inching up only by about 1.4 percent, according to an AAA prediction based on a survey of 1,300 households.
About 38 million domestic travelers are expected to go somewhere this holiday — a far cry from the roughly 58 million who made holiday journeys in 2005 when the economy was better.
Traveling for Thanksgiving at any cost was too much for Julie Bennink, 26, who works in public relations in Chicago. Unexpected medical and other bills meant she couldn't afford paying what would have been at least $400 for a rental car and gas to drive the three hours to Grand Rapids, Mich., for dinner with her family.
"My mom was not really thrilled with me when I told her," Bennink said.
Her plan B was to take a 15-minute city bus ride to a friend's house and bring a cornbread casserole.
Most people have calculated that travel by car often makes the most financial sense, said Alan Pisarski, a leading transportation analyst. About 33 million people are expected to travel by car this Thanksgiving, according to AAA.
John and Janet Lawson of Elizabethtown, Ky., opted to drive 350 miles to Dearborn Heights, Mich., to make dinner for one of her sisters rather than spend the holiday with her other siblings in Minnesota.
"It affected us as far as the distance we would travel," Janet Lawson said at a service plaza along Interstate 75 in southwest Ohio. "We didn't want to do any flying."
The Lawsons left home at 4 a.m. Wednesday, hoping to beat traffic. Their SUV was loaded with turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and pies.
"If we get stranded on the side of the road, we are not going to starve," John Lawson said.
In Tennessee, Pam Walker and her family of five arrived in Nashville early Wednesday after a more than seven-hour drive from Muskegon, Mich., to visit her son.
"It's cheaper and it's also a ride we're familiar with," said Walker, who was meeting her son at a restaurant for breakfast.
Train ridership also was predicted to get a holiday boost. Amtrak said it expected Wednesday to be its busiest travel day of the year, with ridership as high as 125,000 passengers. On a typical Wednesday, the railroad carries approximately 74,000 passengers.
At New York City's Penn Station, sisters Emily and Katie Jacobs ate breakfast and drank coffee at they waited for their train to Atlantic City, N.J., to visit their family.
Emily Jacobs, 26, said they decided Amtrak was the best option after considering "traffic on the roads, getting out of the city, and then the New Jersey Turnpike ... might as well bypass all that."
The cost of flying also was a deterent, Emily Jacobs said, since "ticket prices for planes were insane" already and the surcharges for holiday airfare were even more discouraging.
Airlines had been depending on holiday travelers more than usual because travel has been so weak the rest of the year, said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Hunter Keay. The AAA predicts there will be a 6.7 percent decrease in air travelers this holiday compared with last year.
That doesn't mean fewer sardine-packed planes. Carriers have cut the number of aircraft in service, ensuring full planes. And with extra fees to check baggage on most carriers, many travelers are likely to bring as much as they can on board. So add battles for overhead compartment space to the list of potential aggravations.
Some travelers were lured to fly at the last minute by airline bargains. Danny Cruz, 30, a bookstore employee from Atlanta, was facing a holiday apart from her mom who lives in Orlando because airfares were too high. But they took to the Internet and scored a last-minute deal — from airlines scrambling to sell open seats.
"Suddenly one day it went from almost $400 to almost half the price," Cruz said.
So far, air travelers found quick lines and little aggravation. The world's busiest airport, Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is bracing for a rush of 1.7 million holiday travelers — in line with the holiday period last year, general manager Ben DeCosta said.
Matthew Paulk, a student from New York City, said he braced for the worst before he arrived at the Atlanta airport.
"I expected it to be hectic — people losing their bags, tripping, dropping stuff, arguments," he said. "But it was really good. It wasn't what I expected."