Holiday travel on the upswing, surveys show

Airport security measures may be more daunting and gasoline prices are going up, but Americans won't be deterred from traveling to visit family and friends this Thanksgiving holiday.

During the upcoming holiday weekend, 42.2 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles, an 11.4% increase over the same period last year, according to an annual survey released Tuesday by the American Automobile Assn.

In Southern California, Auto Club members said in a separate survey that they also planned to take more trips and spend more money on both travel and shopping during the November and December holidays, compared with 2009.

This year, 47% of Southern Californians plan to take at least one leisure trip this holiday season, compared with 43% last year, according to the Auto Club survey.

While the higher travel numbers suggest Americans are feeling more confident about the still-sluggish economy, Auto Club officials point out that the projected increase won't return Americans to a pre-recession level of travel spending.

"We definitely haven't bounced back to the higher levels we had earlier this decade," said Auto Club of Southern California spokeswoman Marie Montgomery.

The nationwide increase of 4.3 million travelers over last year is less than half of the volume lost from 2007 through 2009, according to the Auto Club. Also, this year's expected total of 42.million travelers is about 28% below the 2005 peak of 58.6 million travelers.

And despite some signs of an improving economy, some Southern Californians say they are not ready to return to their pre-recession spending habits.

Paul Marangoni, a software consultant from Newport Beach, plans to travel to Tucson with his girlfriend for Thanksgiving, but he

said he was going to keep a tight rein on his holiday spending.

"I will definitely not be spending more this holiday season and won't be lured into parting with my money just because of drastically reduced prices and going-out-of-business sales," he said.

The national forecast was based on surveys of nearly 500 people taken Oct. 21-24 by IHS Global Insight, a Lexington, Mass., forecasting firm. The Southern California report was based on a survey of more than 500 Auto Club members Oct.


According to the national survey, 94% of Americans who plan to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday will do so by automobile, up from about 93% last year. About 4% plan to travel by air, about the same share as last year. The balance will travel by boat, train or bus.

And it seems Americans are not deterred by increasing gasoline prices. In October, the nationwide average for self-serve regular was $2.79 a gallon, up from $2.55 a year earlier.

In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, prices for regular self-serve gasoline averaged $3.113 a gallon last week, 12 cents higher than the same period last year, according to the Auto Club.

Travel experts say they are not sure if more vacationers are opting to drive because they want to save money or because they'd rather avoid the increased airport security measures added in the last few weeks. They point out that most holiday travel plans were made before the heightened measures were unveiled.

This month the Transportation Security Administration ordered security officers to employ a more aggressive pat-down screening technique that has drawn protests from privacy advocates and traveler rights groups. The American Civil Liberties Union likened the new search techniques to a "groping."

The TSA has also increased the use of full-body imaging scanners, which use low levels of radiation to create what resembles a nude image of the screened passenger to identify weapons and contraband hidden under clothing. Today the TSA operates 385 such units at 68 airports across the country, including a few in Southern California.

This holiday season may represent a challenge for the TSA, according to airline industry experts. If the added security measures create gridlock and headaches at the airports, vacation travelers may respond by cutting back even more on airline travel next year, they say.

"This holiday season will be important for travelers," said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Assn., a trade group that represents airlines worldwide. "The experience over the next month could determine their future travel habits."

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