CHICAGO – Millions of Americans piled their families into cars, hopped on buses and waited out delays at airports Wednesday as they set off on Thanksgiving treks that many said required financial sacrifice, help from relatives to come up with airfare and hours searching online for deals.
Accepting that the road out of the recession will be long, many said they've become savvier or at least hardier travelers — resilient enough to brave a day-long drive with the kids or a long haul by bus instead of flying. Others adjusted their travel schedules to try to save money, flying on less popular days or to airports that were a bit farther from their destination.
The weather, along with the economy, handed setbacks to some. Heavy fog shrouded Chicago, causing more than 1,600 delays or cancellations in and out of its two airports and sending ripples around the nation.
And at New York City's Penn Station, a power failure in a switching system halted all trains for more than an hour at the height of the evening commute. It caused delays of 90 minutes or more on Amtrak and two of the nation's busiest commuter railroads.
The effects of Superstorm Sandy added to the hassle for travelers on the East Coast.
Chris McLaughlin, a 22-year-old senior at Boston College from West Chester, Penn., had hoped to combine his trip home for Thanksgiving with a medical school interview in Philadelphia, but the storm delayed his interview, so he'll have to make an extra trip home next month. He figured that would cost him another $200.
"It killed me," McLaughlin said of the financial impact of the storm, which also left his parents without power for eight days. "I think we were feeling we could loosen up a little bit (financially), but with Sandy and everything that happened, (people) feel like they can't."
And it's not just family finances that are tighter. Airlines struggling to save on jet fuel and other expenses have cut the number of flights, leading to a jump in airfares. Those hitting the roads face high gas prices and rising tolls.
After a couple of years of healthy post-recession growth, Thanksgiving travel this year was expected to be up only slightly, 0.7 percent, from last year, according to AAA's yearly Thanksgiving travel analysis. Among the 43.6 million Americans expected to journey 50 miles or more between Wednesday and Sunday, more were driving and fewer were flying. Their planned trips were shorter too, by about 120 miles on average, the travel organization said.
As car ownership declines among younger Americans, many of those hitting the road were jumping onto buses. Intercity bus service has grown in recent years with curbside companies like Megabus.
At a Greyhound terminal in downtown Denver, Eileen Lindbuchler, a 32-year-old massage therapist, hauled her bulky massage table through the line to board a bus. She had used her iPhone to coordinate bus schedules and connecting routes for the 65-mile journey to visit family in Colorado Springs and expected the effort to save her money.
"I think it's going to be a lot cheaper," she said. "I want to see how it works. I've always had to travel by car."
Aided by smartphone apps, social media and other technology, consumers are getting better at sniffing out deals and realize they need to be flexible with dates and even the airports they chose when booking, said Courtney Scott, a senior editor at Travelocity.
"I think people are really becoming smarter, more creative travelers and shoppers," Scott said.
Sometimes, though, no amount of creativity with an airline booking can avoid breaking the bank for those with large families.
So, Linne Katz and her five children hit the road, leaving their home in Haledon, N.J., at 1 a.m. Wednesday in hopes of getting to her father's home in Tennessee while the sun was still up. Driving has downsides, she said.
"My oldest keeps having to go the bathroom. ... I think he's getting carsick," Katz said, as she stopped to take pictures of her children under the "Virginia Welcomes You" sign at an I-66 rest stop near the Manassas National Battlefield.
And even with all the alternatives to flying, some still said they couldn't afford the journey.
Lisa Appleton, 42, of Sandy Springs, Ga., said she lost her job as an accounting manager during the holidays last year. Her new job at an ice skating rink pays less, and she said that forced her to skip her usual Thanksgiving road trip to visit family in northeast Ohio.
"This is the first year that I have not gone in like five years," she said. "It seems weird to me."
She planned to spend the holiday at home with her 23-year-old son, eating and watching football. After checking airline prices, she decided they'll also stay in Georgia for Christmas.
"It breaks my heart, but it's something you've got to do," she said. "If you don't have the money, you just — you can't do it."
Associated Press writers Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia, P. Solomon Banda in Denver, Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio; and Matthew Barakat in Chantilly, Va., contributed to this report.