Holiday Travel Seen Closing in on Pre-Pandemic Levels

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That’s how many of the record 119.3 million people who traveled over the holidays in 2019 may be back this season, according to new AAA estimates. 

AAA expects 109.5 million people will travel at least 50 miles between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, either by plane, car, bus, train or cruise ship, the motor club said on Tuesday. That would be up 34% from last year, when the pandemic made gathering far more difficult, and roughly 8% shy of the 2019 level.

The expected surge in travelers suggests neither the new omicron variant of COVID-19 nor travel costs will be a major deterrent for people planning long-distance trips to friends and family, particularly because vaccines against the virus are now widely available, AAA said. Indeed, since omicron first became widely known in late November, a daily Morning Consult survey of 6,000 U.S. consumers shows their view of financial conditions—their own and within the economy—has barely changed.

“Americans who canceled their vacations in 2020 want to gather with family and friends for the holidays this year, although they will still be mindful of the pandemic and the new omicron variant,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in a statement. 

(AAA’s statement on Tuesday said the forecast was actually prepared on Nov. 15, before the World Health Organization declared omicron a “variant of concern.”)

AAA said prices for holiday travel are higher than last year: mid-range AAA approved hotels are up 36% for Christmas travel, average rental car rates are up 20% for Christmas week and 65% for New Year’s, and airfares are up 5% for Christmas week and 27% for New Year’s, according to AAA flight booking data. And of course, there’s the more than $1-a-gallon spike in gasoline, which will impact the vast majority of holiday travelers, since 91% are expected to drive. 

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  1. AAA. “2021 Year-End Travel Forecast: Almost 110 Million Travelers Expected During the Year-End Holiday Period, Nearing Pre-Pandemic Levels.”

  2. AAA. ‘Tis the Season: More than 109 Million Americans to Travel for the Holidays.”

  3. Morning Consult. “The US Morning Consult Dashboard.”

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