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AAA says 1 in 3 will travel during holidays

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 12:28 a.m.

Terry Potts and her husband paid more to fly home for the holidays this year, but never considered scrapping the 3,890-mile trip from the Netherlands to visit family in the North Hills.

“Prices are up slightly, but this is where our families are, so we come,” said Potts, 52, an Allison Park native who has lived in Europe for seven years. On Tuesday, days before most holiday travelers will embark, she shopped at Ross Park Mall.

The trade group AAA predicts 93.3 million Americans — almost one in three — will travel at least 50 miles from home in the 11-day period from Saturday through Jan. 1. That's up almost 2 percent from last year.

AAA's East Central Region, which includes Pittsburgh, expects 10.5 million people in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey to travel at least 50 miles from home, up 300,000 from last year. About 9.3 million will drive, 708,000 will fly and the rest will use other modes such as buses, trains and ships, AAA said.

Americans will travel farther, going an average of 760 miles round-trip compared with 726 miles a year ago, AAA said. And they'll spend 2 percent more on hotels ($129 a night, on average) and 40 percent more on rental cars ($56 a day).

There's more for those who drive for the holiday: The National Weather Service in Moon said there is a chance of snow showers Thursday night through Saturday, with up to a half-inch expected Thursday night, up to two inches on Friday and up to one inch expected on Saturday.

Gas prices hit record highs for this time of year, though they fell in recent weeks and should continue doing so through Christmas, said Bevi Powell, spokeswoman for AAA's East Central Region, based in East Liberty.

The national average price for regular unleaded gasoline hovered around $3.24 a gallon on Tuesday, but the average price at Western Pennsylvania pumps was $3.44 a gallon. The local price dropped 21 cents a gallon in the past month but remains 11 cents higher than a year ago.

“Typically, prices trend down after the summer driving season, but refinery and distribution issues and then Hurricane Sandy delayed that (downward trend),” Powell said, adding that she thinks prices could “drop another dime” by Christmas.

Brian Ek, spokesman for the online travel company Priceline.com, said holiday airfares for domestic round-trips are up 4 percent compared with last year, based on two weeks of booking through early December.

Despite the increased costs, Ruth Nagy, the East Central Region's managing director of travel operations, said: “Americans don't like to give up their vacations. They might be willing to skimp in other areas of their life, but they don't want to give up on spending time with their families.”

Sewickley's Bonnie Casper traveled to Brooklyn a couple of weekends ago to visit one of her grown children and will go to San Francisco over the Christmas holiday to visit the other. Casper booked flights on low-cost airlines months in advance, but she was determined to go regardless of the cost.

“I want to see my grandchildren,” Casper said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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