BURNSVILLE, Minn. -- With two holiday weekends this December, AAA anticipates Christmas-New Year's holiday travel to hit its highest level ever, with an estimated 62.7 million Americans traveling 50 miles or more from home. This repesents a 3% increase over last year's 60.8 million travelers.

"With Christmas and New Year's Day both falling on Saturdays, many people will make weekend getaways," said Shannon Swanson, AAA Minnesota/Iowa spokesperson. "There is a downside to having both holidays fall on weekends, though. Last year provided separate weeklong windows for typical Saturday-to- Saturday vacations built around either Christmas or New Year's. This year, with just one week that includes the two holidays, competition for space at beach destinations, on cruise ships and at ski resorts has been much greater than last year."

Approximately 50.9 million travelers (81% of all holiday travelers) expect to go by motor vehicle, a 2.9% increase from the 49.4 million who drove a year ago. Another 8.6 million (14% of holiday travelers) plan to travel by airplane, up 3.5% from the 8.3 million that flew last Christmas-New Year's holiday. A projected 3.2 million travelers (5%) will go by train, bus, or other mode of transportation, up from 3.1 million a year ago.

Holiday auto travelers will find gas prices nationwide currently averaging $1.83 per gallon, down 14 cents during the last month, but about 36 cents higher than a year ago.

Other holiday travel costs are down from last year, with airfares down 6% from last year, reflecting expanded service by discount airlines, and hotel rates bucking recent price increases, falling 1.4% from last year. Rental car rates increased slightly, up 2.3% from 2003.

The greatest number of holiday auto travelers will originate in the Southeast with 13.3 million, followed by the West, 12.9 million; Midwest, 10.3 million; the Great Lakes, 8.0 million; and the Northeast, 6.4 million.

The Southeast is expected to produce the largest number of air travelers with 2.5 million, just ahead of the West, with 2.4 million. They are followed by the Northeast, 1.7 million; Midwest, 1.1 million; and Great Lakes with 900,000.

Cities are the expected destination for 40% of Christmas-New Year's travelers, followed by towns/rural areas, 29%. Oceans and beaches are popular, getting 15% of travelers, followed by mountain areas, 7%; 2% for lake areas; and 1% each for theme/amusement parks and state/national parks. Another 4% responded with other, and 1% said they didn't know.

Research for holiday travel is based on economic modeling and a national telephone survey of 1,397 adults by the Travel Industry Association of America.