Slightly more Americans will hit the road this Thanksgiving, according to AAA. That includes people who are choosing to drive instead of fly as household budgets remain tight.
In its annual Thanksgiving travel forecast released Tuesday, AAA predicts 43.6 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home over the holiday, up just 0.7 percent from last year.
But while more people are traveling, it appears that the pent-up demand seen following the recession has largely dissipated. Demand grew a healthy 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively, in the two previous Thanksgiving holiday periods even though economic growth was moderate. Now, AAA says, it will take a stronger economy to spur a significant jump in travel demand going forward.
"Despite mild improvements in unemployment, the housing market and greater consumer optimism, the economy is still struggling to keep its head above water," AAA said in its forecast.
The forecast, produced from a combination of a traveler survey and economic analysis, was done before superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast. AAA said it doesn't yet know the full impact the storm will have on travel in the Mid-Atlantic region, but it expects it will be significant.
The number of travelers forecast to drive, fly or board a train or bus this holiday is still 26 percent below the peak in 2005 and 14 percent below 2007.
Air travel is expected to decline, one sign that many households continue to feel financially pinched. AAA expects 3.14 million people to fly, down from 3.2 million a year earlier. Even with gas at a current national average of $3.44 per gallon, driving the family from New England to the Midwest to see the relatives is still cheaper than flying.
However, Airlines for America, the main trade group for U.S. airlines, expects a mild increase in flying over Thanksgiving. The group's prediction covers the 12 days starting Nov. 16. AAA defines the Thanksgiving holiday travel period as Wednesday, Nov. 21, to Sunday, Nov. 25.