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A Survival Guide to the Busiest Travel Day of the Year

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The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is often the busiest travel day of the year, and this year is looking to be no exception. Before you leave home, here’s what you can expect in airports and on the road this year.

AAA’s Thanksgiving 2011 forecast cites 42.5 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles from home during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Yes, a lot of people are on the road and in the air, but the good news is this represents slight economic recovery.

Thanksgiving holiday travelers have increased 4 percent from last year’s 40.9 million, but are still below 2005’s peak number of 58.6 million. This year’s 42.5 million travelers are a significant increase from 2008, when the economic recession resulted in only 37.8 Americans traveling over the holiday, down 25.2 percent from the year before.

Most Americans are traveling to see family, but those who are taking trips for pleasure will find hotel savings. According to Travelocity, the average price of hotel rooms is at $114 over Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving on the Road

AAA expects that 90 percent of those traveling tomorrow will be on the road with 38.2 million Americans traveling by automobile. This number is also up 4 percent from last year.

Many Americans are flying and driving. Airport locations of National Car Rental, Alamo Rent A Car and Enterprise Rent-A-Car have all seen reservations go up 10 percent in comparison to Thanksgiving 2010.

Americans can expect to pay more at the pump this year. Across the country, the average gallon of gas now cost $3.43. Though gas prices are about 60 cents higher on average than they were last year, the cost of fuel is not expected to go higher.

To stay safe as you are stuck in traffic this year, remember to buckle up, remain alert while driving and avoid distracted driving practices and to be careful not to drive under the influence. Also, make sure to look out for any leaves on the ground which can cover up potholes, curbs, and street markings. And if those leaves are wet, it can affect steering and braking. Most drivers know to go slow in inclement weather, but remember icy spots can arise on bridges, overpasses and shady areas, even if regular roads are perfectly dry.

Thanksgiving at the Airport

According to a recent study by the Air Transportation Association (ATA), 23.2 million U.S. travelers are expected to fly over the 12-day period surrounding Thanksgiving on both international and domestic flights. About 3.4 million will fly over the the Thanksgiving weekend itself, according to AAA’s study.

This year about 37,000 fewer passengers are expected to fly when compared to last year. However, these passengers will be flying on fuller planes–more than 87 percent of planes are now flying at full capacity. And those who do fly will pay airline ticket prices about 20 percent higher than last year, an increase that AAA is attributing to rising fuel prices and greater demand.

In addition to full planes, expect crowded airports this Thanksgiving. Orbitz did a study for the travel days between November 23 and November 27 which indicated that Los Angeles’ LAX, Chicago’s O’Hare and Orlando International will be the nation’s busiest airports in 2011.

New York’s three airports—John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International–are listed in the top 10 trafficked airports for the Thanksgiving holiday. However, Ronald Reagan Washington National and Atlanta’s Hartsfield International are no longer on the busiest airports list, being replaced by Orlando International.

If you’re looking to beat the crowds check out alternate airports like Mineta San Jose International, John Wayne Airport in California’s Orange County and Kahului Airport on the Hawaiian island of Maui, which are expected to be the least crowded with holiday travelers.

Lastly, as you head to the airport this holiday season remember you will see a few changes. Parents traveling with children under 12 will no longer have to remove the children’s shoes. And if you want to pass through the airport faster, consider Peter’s contrarian method: print your boarding pass ahead of time, ship your luggage and go against the flow of airport traffic whenever possible.

By Lily J. Kosner for

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Related link: LA Times, Fox News, Washington Post, AAA, Reuters, Orbitz