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More Americans to hit the road this holiday, AAA predicts

Airlines for America, the U.S. airline industry’s trade group, is forecasting about 43.3 million air travelers during the 21 days surrounding Christmas and New Year‘s, a 1% drop from the same period last year. It would be the smallest number of air travelers since the organization started collecting holiday sample data seven years ago.

At the same time, about 83.6 million people plan to drive this Christmas and New Year’s, a 2.1% increase from last year, the auto group AAA forecasts. If they do, it would be the second-highest volume in the past decade.

But the trip will cost more than a year ago. The average for regular unleaded is $3.21 a gallon, 22 cents more than last year at this time, AAA says.

Amtrak doesn’t issue predictions but says that from Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30 this year, it set an annual ridership record of 30.2 million passengers. During Thanksgiving week, the rail service’s busiest travel period of the year, ridership was up 2.8% over 2010. Megabus, one of several budget bus companies, is expecting 25% to 35% more passengers than usual.

Getting around on the ground is the choice of many travelers who don’t want to risk flight delays and cancellations, which run at a higher rate over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. They also say they prefer the freedom of driving — picking their departure times and packing what they’d like — even if it means dealing with high fuel prices and traffic.

Last year, a blizzard stranded Whitney and Justin Bride and their child in New England when they flew there to visit family for the holidays. This year, with a second child and cousin in tow, they opted to drive 17 hours from their home in Denver to Houston. They spent $150 on gas one way, but they figured it was still cheaper than airfare and a car rental to get around Houston. They also got to pack many toys for the kids, and even a toy for their dad — his guitar. “It was a nice break this year to do something different,” Whitney Bride says.

Kristen Beat is driving 8½ hours from Milwaukee to her family’s home in Omaha on Friday. She’s not worried about the price of gas or traffic, though she has been checking the five-day weather forecast regularly. She’s happy to avoid an airport this holiday.

“My presents are all wrapped and packed in my trunk and I don’t need to worry about carry-on or checked baggage requirements,” she says. “I wish the drive were a bit faster … (but) all the more time to listen to Christmas music.”

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