AAA is projecting 87.7 million Americans will be traveling 50 miles or more away from home during the year-end holidays. This is a 3.8 percent increase from the 84.5 million Americans who traveled during the same Christmas/New Year period one year ago, and is the largest projected increase for any major holiday this year.

The number of travelers by automobile is expected to be 77.7 million in 2009, an increase of 4.4 percent from 74.4 million last year. The number of travelers by air is expected be 4.2 million, an increase of 2.9 percent from 4.1 million in 2008.

The number of those traveling by “other” means, including, trains, watercraft, buses and multiple-modes of transportation, is expected to be 5.8 million compared to 6.0 million last year, AAA said. Last year, the total number of travelers during the year-end holidays was 84.5 million, a decline of 4.7 percent from 2007.

“More Americans traveling during the winter holidays is another sign consumers’ are continuing to grow more confident in their personal financial situations,” said Glen MacDonell, AAA’s director of travel services. “The moderate projected rise in the number of air travelers this holiday period is especially welcome since the airline industry was hit especially hard by the recession.”

For purposes of this forecast the year-end holidays travel period is defined as trips that include travel of 50 miles or more away from home during the period from Wednesday, Dec. 23 to Sunday, Jan. 3.

Gasoline prices – while higher – will not deter holiday travelers, AAA says

Eighty-eight percent of year-end vacationers are expected to travel by automobile, while five percent are projected to go by air. In November, the time when most people make decisions in regards to year-end travel, average gasoline prices were over $.50 more expensive per gallon than they were in November 2008. Despite these higher prices, AAA believes the impact of higher fuel costs on year-end travel will be minimal. This is because the average cost of self-serve regular gasoline remains well-below $3 per gallon, and because prices have been fairly stable since mid-October, staying between $2.60 and $2.70 per gallon on a nationwide average basis.

Average spending will be $1,009 and average distance traveled will be 791 miles

Americans are expected to spend approximately $1,009 per household on travel during the Christmas/New Year period. The largest average share of all spending will be on transportation and transportation-related charges. Approximately 11.6 percent of spending will go toward lodging. Dining will account for 17.6 percent of total holiday spend, while shopping will account for 17.6 percent. Entertainment and recreation expenses will account for 13.1 percent of the average travel budget.

Christmas/New Year travelers will average of 791 miles roundtrip this upcoming holiday weekend. An estimated forty percent of travelers will journey more than 700 miles round trip. One-quarter (25 percent) of travelers will log between 251 and 700 miles. More than one-third (35 percent) of travelers will travel 250 miles or less round trip.

Airfare and rental car cost to be slightly higher, lodging expense will be lower

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 year-end holidays period are expected to increase two percent from last year to an average of $179 per roundtrip ticket.

Car rental rates also will increase; up two percent to an average of $50 per day for a mid-size car versus $49 per day last year.

Rates for AAA Three Diamond lodgings are expected to be 10 percent less than last year with travelers spending an average of $119 per night. Travelers planning to stay at AAA Two Diamond lodgings will pay 6 percent less than last year; an average of $86 per night. These are the lowest average lodging rates for this time period since 2004.