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AAA: Holiday season travel to be busiest in 6 years

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Nov. 21, 2012: Travelers walk through New York's Penn Station.AP

This Christmas travel season could be the busiest in six years, with AAA predicting that 93.3 million Americans will hit the road. That's 1.6 percent more than last year and just 400,000 people shy of the 2006 record.

This year, highways will be more crowded than ever, largely because finding a seat on a plane at a desirable price has gotten more difficult. AAA says 84.4 million people will drive at least 50 miles between Dec. 22 and Jan. 1 — a new record. That's 90.5 percent of holiday travelers, up from 89.3 percent six years ago.

Put another way: one in four Americans will be driving long distances for Christmas and New Year's. So expect plenty of traffic jams, crowded highway rest stops and overflowing toll plazas.

"The year-end holiday season remains the least volatile of all travel holidays as Americans will not let economic conditions or high gas prices dictate if they go home for the holidays or kick off the New Year with a vacation," say AAA president and CEO Robert Darbelnet.

The travel forecast done by IHS Global Insight for AAA is based on interviews with 655 Americans and factors in estimates about the overall health of the economy.

Drivers will see gas prices between $3.20 and $3.40 a gallon, on average, by New Year's Day, according to AAA, one of the nation's largest leisure travel agencies. Gas prices have dropped about 50 cents a gallon on average since September, but remain at record highs for this time of year.

The price of hotels and car rentals are also up. AAA three diamond lodgings are forecast to cost $129 a night, up $3 from last year. Two diamond properties are also up $3 a night to $95. Daily car rental rates will average $56, compared to $40 last year.