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Holiday traffic to be heavy for Thanksgiving

IRONTON — Despite gas prices being nearly 90 cents a gallon higher than they were a year ago, holiday travel throughout the Tri-State is expected to be at par to where it was in 2008, officials from AAA said Tuesday.

“Travel for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is going to be holding steady compared to last year,” said Ruth Nagy, director of travel operations for AAA East Central office in Pittsburgh that covers the Tri-State region and serves 2.5 million members.

For Ohio, Nagy said AAA expects 1.5 million people to travel more than 50 miles from their home during the Thanksgiving holiday, with 1.3 million of those driving. She said that number is nearly exact to travel figures for 2008 when gas was averaging $1.71 a gallon.

As of Tuesday, average prices for a gallon of self-serve unleaded was hovering around $2.61 a gallon throughout Lawrence County.

Nagy said that in spite of the increase in gas prices, Thanksgiving is a holiday considered a priority for many people and that savings come in other ways.

“It is a family-oriented holiday that people are able to economize,” Nagy said.

For Sarah Packard, getting home for Thanksgiving is a “right of passage” which needs to be done every year.

“Thanksgiving and Christmas are holidays I never miss,” Packard said while filling up her gas tank at the Coal Grove Speedway Tuesday evening before continuing her journey from Columbus to Charleston to spend the holiday with her boyfriend and his family. “I would drive or fly across the country just to make sure I was with my friends and family for those two days.”

Nationwide, AAA is anticipating more than 33.2 million people traveling by car this year between Wednesday and Sunday. That number represents a 2.1 percent increase from last year.

Nagy said the expected increase also reflects improved consumer confidence from a year ago, when Thanksgiving travel dropped 25 percent following the country’s housing and economic problems.

The large number of drivers this Thanksgiving has local hotels optimistic that reservations will continue to be strong.

Heather Dishman, a front desk agent at the new Comfort Suites in Chesapeake, says reservations for the Thanksgiving holiday have been strong.

“We are doing pretty well,” Dishman said. “While we are not completely full, we have arrivals coming in daily, plus a large number of walk-ins who need rooms.”

Dishman said the 61-room hotel is currently at 70 percent capacity and that number is expected to shrink tonight heading into Thanksgiving Day and the weekend. She added that the hotel is already booking rooms for Christmas.

Nagy added that AAA’s holiday travel forecasts indicate a variety of hotel bargains for 2009 as rates for AAA Three Diamond hotels are down 11 percent from last year.

But despite the increases in automobile traffic, AAA is projecting a 6.7 percent decrease in the number of air travelers this weekend, continuing a decade-long decline of Thanksgiving air travel.

AAA said the passenger drop off is being offset by an 8 percent decrease in the number of seats and flights airlines are currently offering. Many airlines shed flights this year in order to increase its productivity and profit margins.

While those numbers might be indicative of some larger cities, officials at Tri-State Airport say they have been experiencing large passenger waves arriving and departing from the Huntington airport all week.

“Our holiday season kicked off strong last Friday,” said Beckie McKinley, marketing director for Tri-State Airport. “So far everything has gone very smoothly.”

McKinley said both arriving and departing flights have been filled between 92 to 96 percent capacity and have resulted in additional flights being added to the schedules.

Allegiant Air added additional flights from Tri-State Airport to both Orlando and Tampa/St. Petersburg. McKinley said many of the extra flights were the result of customer demand and a high percentage of advanced booking.

AAA anticipates about nearly three million people will take other modes of transportation, including trains and buses this Thanksgiving. That’s up about 1.2 percent from last year.

Amtrak, which has stations in South Shore, Ky., Ashland and Huntington expects Wednesday to be its heaviest single travel day of the year, with as many as 125,000 passengers nationwide.