Fewer holiday travelers expected this year; gas prices lower than last year

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 426 views 

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says traveling can increase the chance of spreading and getting COVID-19, a AAA report shows as many as 84.5 million Americans may travel from Dec. 23 through Jan. 3.

Compared to last year, 34 million fewer travelers are expected from Dec. 23 through Jan. 3, a decline in travel of at least 29%. Up to 81 million will travel by car, a decline of at least 25% from last year, according to AAA.

“While Thanksgiving is traditionally spent gathering with friends and family, the year-end holidays are when Americans often venture out for longer, more elaborate vacations. That will not be the case this year,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. “Public health concerns, official guidance not to travel, and an overall decline in consumer sentiment have encouraged the vast majority of Americans to stay home for the holidays.”

For those who travel by car, gas prices are almost 50 cents lower than they were at this time last year, according to the AAA. Recent monthly gas prices are 19% below 2019 averages.

“Typically, cheaper gas prices are an incentive for last-minute trips, especially around the holidays,” said Jeanette Casselano McGee, AAA spokesperson. “But the lower prices and less traffic aren’t driving decisions to hit the road. Americans are looking to the public health landscape, including COVID-19 case numbers, to make their travel decisions.”

The United States has 16.98 million cases of COVID-19, the highest of any country, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine. India is second with 9.95 million cases. Globally, there are 74.37 million cases.

Following is some CDC guidance for those who travel:

Check travel restrictions before leaving, get a flu shot, bring extra supplies such as masks and hand sanitizer, don’t travel when sick, wear a mask, stay at least six feet from others and wash hands often. Link here for more guidance.

Nationwide, the average price for regular gas is $2.20 per gallon, which is up 5 cents from last week, according to the AAA. The average last year was $2.55 per gallon. In Arkansas, the average is $1.92 per gallon, up three cents from last week but down from $2.26 last year.

Although fewer travelers are expected this holiday season, motorists in large cities could experience delays that are nearly triple normal drive times at bottlenecks during the day. Nationwide, motorists could have travel times of about 20% above normal congestion levels in the pandemic.

“Despite warnings, Thanksgiving traffic surged more than 30% above the daily pandemic average in some states,” said Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX. “We expect a similar increase around the upcoming winter holidays unless stricter travel restrictions are put in place and followed.”

About 2.9 million travelers are expected to travel by air, a decline of nearly 60% from 2019, according to the AAA. Air travelers can expect lower fares this season as AAA has noted double-digit decreases in average flight costs. Up to 480,000 Americans are expected to travel by other modes, including bus and train this holiday season, a decline of 87% from last year as some bus and train trips will be shifted to car travel or canceled.

In a recent survey on holiday travel, 60% of respondents said the pandemic has impacted their holiday travel plans, and 10% said they have switched their mode of transportation to driving by car instead of by plane or train, according to GasBuddy, a crowd-sourced gas pricing app. Asked how gas prices are impacting travel plans, 14% said they were taking a road trip because of low gas prices.

“It’s been a nightmarish year for many due to the spread of COVID-19 and economic challenges that came with it, but many Americans have deeply rooted traditions for the holiday and are unwilling to let them slip away like the rest of the year,” said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy. “Ironically, due to the challenge 2020 has presented, gas prices have fallen, and we project the national average to be $2.19 per gallon on Christmas Day, the second-lowest in the last decade.”

For those who are traveling, 39% of those who were surveyed said they are planning to cross state lines. The Southeast is expected to have the most travelers crossing state lines at 45%, followed by the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific at 41%.

“We’re expecting to see heightened driving activity across some of the most hard-hit areas of the coronavirus,” De Haan said. “It’s more important than ever for travelers to remain safe and vigilant on the roads, particularly at rest stops and gas stations but also amidst state quarantine requirements since many that are hitting the road may be crossing into other states.”

Asked whether news of the COVID vaccine has changed their outlook on driving or celebrating the holidays, 78% of travelers said the news has not changed their outlook, while 13% said they feel more optimistic about travel and 7% said they were less optimistic about travel.

“With most of the country’s views unchanged about driving or celebrating the holidays, fuel demand is expected to rise in the short-term due to holiday travel before tapering off to likely multi-month lows once the New Year arrives,” De Haan added. “Our 2021 Fuel Outlook being released in early January will discuss how the vaccine will impact gas prices and fuel demand throughout the new year.”