AAA projects that 43.6 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend this year — an increase of 0.7% over the 43.3 million people who traveled last year.

This increase marks the fourth consecutive year of growing holiday travelers since 2008 when Thanksgiving travel fell by 25%. The Thanksgiving holiday travel period is defined as Wednesday, Nov. 21 to Sunday, Nov. 25.

AAA asked intended travelers which days they would depart for and return from Thanksgiving Travel. Among those surveyed, the majority of travelers plan to leave the Wednesday before the holiday (45%) and return the following Sunday (36%) with another 25% expecting to return on Monday, Nov. 26.

“While we do not yet know the full impact that Hurricane Sandy will have on travel from the Mid-Atlantic region, we do know that the impact for many Americans in that region is substantial,” noted AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet.

Automobile Remains Top Thanksgiving Travel Mode

Approximately 90% of travelers, or 39.1 million people, plan to travel by automobile this Thanksgiving, according to AAA. This is a 0.6% increase over the 38.9 million people who traveled by auto last year.  Air travel is expected to decrease 1.7%.

Despite the historically high prices paid by motorists this year, the national average has declined by nearly 40 cents a gallon since early October and should continue to drop through the end of the year. AAA estimates the national average price of gasoline will drop to between $3.25 and $3.40 a gallon by the holiday, similar to last year’s average of $3.32, which was the most expensive average ever on Thanksgiving.

Travel Rates

AAA also reports that weekend car rental rates have increased 27% to an average of $47, compared to $37 last year.

Meanwhile, Thanksgiving holiday hotel rates for AAA Three Diamond lodgings are expected to decrease 1% from a year ago, with travelers spending an average of $143 per night compared to $145 last year. Travelers planning to stay at AAA Two Diamond hotels can expect to pay 1% more, at an average cost of $104 per night. 

Travel Distance and Spending

According to the AAA survey of intended travelers, the average distance traveled by Americans during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is expected to be 588 miles, which is a decline of 16.7% from last year when travelers planned to log 706 miles.

Median spending is expected to be $498 — a 10% decrease compared to the expected median spending of $554 of intended holiday travelers in 2011.

AAA’s projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Global Insight. The Colorado-based business information provider teamed with AAA in 2009 to jointly analyze travel trends during the major holidays. AAA has been reporting on holiday travel trends for more than two decades. The complete 2012 Thanksgiving Holiday Travel Forecast can be found here.