CHICAGO – Travelers breezed through airport terminals Wednesday and drivers cruised open roads, the effects of a sour economy blamed for keeping people closer to home at the start of the annual Thanksgiving rush.
Even though gas prices fell and airlines offered last-minute deals, many Americans appeared to be skipping trips this year. San Francisco resident Sharon McKellar called the Miami airport “shockingly quiet” after flying in overnight to visit family.
At Boston’s Logan International Airport, Alicia Kelly, 47, traveling with her husband and two children to Miami to spend the holidays with her family, said it was the lightest Thanksgiving travel she’s ever seen. “We have waited in no lines so far,” she said.
Security lines moved along briskly at under 10 minutes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport. At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, travelers found parking spots in the front row of the lot and no wait for check-in and security. The Delta terminal was nearly empty.
“This is crazy. There’s no one here. It’s quieter than on most weekdays,” said Ryan Sullivan, who was flying to New York with his wife and two kids.
Nationally, the Automobile Association of America says 41 million Americans were expected to travel over 50 miles for the holiday, down about 1.5 percent or 600,000 people from last Thanksgiving. Flying is expected to be down more sharply, about 7 percent, than about 1 percent for driving.
“The economy is in such bad shape. … They’re still really hesitant to take that trip,” said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA Chicago.
Even though airlines offered last-minute fares in an attempt to get more people in the air, it may take until after the first of the year to know if it worked, said Graeme Wallace, chief technical officer for farecompare.com, a consumer airline ticket research Web site.
“With the economy tanking, they’re thinking, ‘Do I want to spend $400 for a 1,200 mile trip?”‘ Wallace said.
Still, some were undeterred. Carpenter Michael Layman, 59, left Tampa, Fla., early Tuesday to drive about 1,200 miles home to Clinton Township, Mich., for Thanksgiving with his wife, their two children and four grandchildren. He moved to Florida three years ago because of better work opportunities than he could find in Michigan.
“I’m looking forward to being with my family. I wouldn’t miss Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Layman said after he stopped to sleep for a few hours in the back of his minivan at an Interstate 75 rest area about 30 miles north of Cincinnati.
He said he was pleased when gas prices began falling several weeks ago. Layman said he had been paying about $70 dollars to fill up and now pays less than half of that. “That felt pretty good,” he said.
Weather across most of the country was forecast to be clear, making it easier for those who did decide to travel. But there were some problems, especially heavy rain that swept southern California. In San Diego, flooding forced the closure of northbound lanes of Interstate 5 for several hours Wednesday morning after at least two vehicles hydroplaned in a few feet of water and crashed.
The Northeast had clouds and precipitation. Some heavy rain and snow showers were expected across upper New England while parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York could see up to a half of a foot of lake-effect snow.
Even though Marvin and Kathy Boyd had money to buy air tickets, a last-minute delay proved costly. The couple, en route from Denver to Augusta, Ga., missed getting their bags checked in by two minutes at Denver International Airport. Now they have to get another flight. They were waiting for Kathy Boyd’s mother to deposit money in her bank account to pay for the switch.
“We have to pay the money to change and we don’t have the money,” said Kathy Boyd, 54.
Cutbacks didn’t deter Donita Hill of Estero, Fla., who was traveling with her husband, Bob to spend Thanksgiving with their son, a resident at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The couple waited Wednesday to take a train to Worcester, Mass.
“I think sometimes when money is tight, you re-evaluate what’s really important to you, and you realize that it’s really family and friends,” said Donita Hill.
“Maybe you cut back on the (holiday) gifts a little bit, or maybe you don’t have as extravagant a Thanksgiving as you used to,” she said. “Maybe you don’t have a free-range bird as you’ve had in the past; maybe you go to a Butterball.”