AAA projected 38.4 million Americans will be traveling 50 miles or more away from home over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend; a 1.4 percent increase over last year when 37.8 million traveled.

The number of travelers by automobile is expected to be 33.2 million in 2009 compared to 32.5 million last year; an increase of 2.1 percent. The number of travelers by air is expected be 2.3 million compared to 2.5 million in 2008; a decline of 6.7 percent. The number of those traveling by “other” means, including, trains, watercraft, buses and multiple-modes of transportation, is expected to be 2.9 million compared to 2.8 million last year, an increase of 1.2 percent, AAA said.

Last year, Thanksgiving travel dropped a precipitous 25.2 percent in the wake of the ongoing housing and financial crisis. This year’s expected increase in travel reflects improved consumer confidence from one year ago, better financial market performance and a growing sense among many consumers that the worst of the global economic crisis is behind us, AAA said.

“Although far too many Americans remain unemployed or under other financial stress, AAA’s projected increase in Thanksgiving travel from one year ago is another hopeful sign that economic conditions are stabilizing and improving in some areas. We can also be thankful the gradual recovery we have been seeing in the U.S. travel industry since the start of the summer is continuing,” said Glen MacDonell, AAA’s director of travel services.

Number of Thanksgiving Air Travelers Continues to Decline

Eighty-six percent of Thanksgiving vacationers are expected to travel by automobile, while only six percent say they will go by air. In October, the time when most people make decisions in regards to Thanksgiving travel, average gasoline prices were approximately 54 cents cheaper than they were in October 2008. Despite increases in gasoline prices since October this year, most people will not change their decision to fly verses drive since seat availability becomes more limited and airline ticket prices increase as the holiday approaches.

This year’s decrease in the number of air travelers continues a decade-long trend in which air travel as a percentage of total Thanksgiving travel has declined substantially. Since 2000, the number of Americans traveling by air during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has dropped an astounding 62 percent. While much of this decrease can be attributed to ongoing economic difficulties, the air travel experience itself has undergone a substantial change since the 1990s with stricter airport security, more frequent flight delays, reduced capacity, added surcharges and fees, all contributing to the decline. Those traveling by “other” means — including trains, watercraft, buses, RVs and multiple modes of travel — are projected to comprise 8 percent of holiday travelers.

AAA Calculates Average Spending and Distance Traveled

Thanksgiving travelers expect to spend approximately $718 per household this upcoming holiday weekend. With the main purpose of Thanksgiving holiday being a special meal with family and friends, it is not surprising that only 15.7 percent of spending will be for accommodations, while 32 percent will be for transportation.

Food and beverage will absorb 21 percent of spending and shopping will account for 16 percent. Entertainment and recreation will account for 10 percent of spending on average. “Other” or miscellaneous spending is five percent.

Thanksgiving travelers will journey an average of 815 miles roundtrip this upcoming holiday weekend. More than one-third (37 percent) of travelers will travel 250 miles or less round trip. Slightly less than one-quarter (24 percent) of weekend travelers will log between 251 and 700 miles. And 38 percent will travel more than 700 miles round trip.

Lower Airfare, Lodging and Rental Car Costs

According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index — a monitor of pricing in 20 popular cities across the US for hotel and car rentals, as well as 40 pairs of cities for air travel pricing — the lowest average published airfares over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend are expected to decrease four percent from last year to an average of $170 per roundtrip ticket.

Car rental rates are down three percent to an average of $44 per day for a mid-size car versus $45 per day last year.

Rates for AAA Three Diamond lodgings are expected to be 11 percent less than last year with travelers spending an average of $128 per night. Travelers planning to stay at AAA Two Diamond lodgings will pay 13 percent less than last year; an average of $92 per night.