Thanksgiving travelers rush for early getaways

Motorists drive along the Saw Mill River Parkway

Motorists drive along the Saw Mill River Parkway south of Pleasantville. (Feb. 8, 2012) (Credit: Rory Glaeseman)

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U.S. travelers will be pushing to get an early start on the long Thanksgiving weekend, according to a new report.

By the end of Tuesday, about a third of all travelers will have left for their weekend destinations, said the IHS Global Insight/AAA Thanksgiving 2012 Forecast. By the end of Wednesday, the biggest getaway day, more than three-quarters will have hit the road.

Those coming to the New York area may have a tougher trip than those leaving for the weekend. According to Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesman for the AAA, rental cars may be hard to find in and around New York, a problem related to Hurricane Sandy.

"Travelers to our area will be facing a problem getting a rental car," Sinclair said. "Because of the vehicles destroyed by Sandy, there's been a run on rental cars."

Sinclair said rental car rates in New York are now 95 percent higher than in 2011, reaching $350-$400 a week.

Almost 90 percent of U.S. travelers -- 39.1 million -- will be going by car this Thanksgiving, the report said, as the number of fliers is projected to drop from 7.4 percent of travelers in 2011 to 7.2 percent, or 3.1 million. Buses, trains, watercraft and other travel account for the remaining 2.9 percent.

The decrease in air travel will cause a steep decline in the average distance logged by vacationers, from 706 miles in 2011 to 588 miles in 2012, according to the study's projections.

That trend also holds true in the Middle Atlantic region -- New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- with a 2 percent decline in pricier air travel.

"Folks are desiring to economize," Sinclair said.

The AAA report draws parallels between the willingness of Americans to splurge on a holiday and a region's economic growth.

"Consumers remain cautious in terms of their spending decisions, but consumer sentiment is improving, as evidenced by the pickup in vehicle and housing sales," the report said.

Holiday drivers also are keeping a wary eye on gasoline prices.

In White Plains, the lowest price for a gallon of regular Monday night was $3.93, according to gasbuddy.com, while the average for New York City was $4. In Stony Point, the lowest price for regular was $3.93.

In the Hudson Valley, at least a chunk of those road travelers will be on Interstate 87. Though the The New York State Thruway doesn't issue forecasts, in 2011 3.1 million vehicles traveled an estimated 110.1 million miles on the toll road, the agency said.

For Hudson Valley residents who ride the rails, Metro-North is running special getaway trains from Grand Central Terminal on Wednesday starting at 1 p.m. The railroad will run a holiday schedule on Thanksgiving Day -- one of the busiest travel days of the year -- with extra morning inbound and outbound trains. Straphangers must have a train ticket before boarding at Grand Central or Harlem-125th Street Station on Thanksgiving, officials said.

On Friday, Metro-North will operate a Saturday schedule, with extra service in the morning and afternoon. The Hudson, Harlem and New Haven lines will run extra shoppers' special trains on Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 29.

For rail riders traveling longer distances, Amtrak said in a statement that it would be using "every available passenger rail car in its fleet" for the holiday season. The railroad warned that tickets are likely to sell out on Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Saturday and Sunday following.

Among the region's biggest attractions will be the 86th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which draws more than 3 million people to Manhattan, according to organizers. The 2012 edition will introduce a smartphone app that lets viewers virtually turn themselves into an elf balloon floating above the parade, which kicks off at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Among the balloons making their debut this year: Hello, Kitty! and Elf on the Shelf.

In years past, thousands have enjoyed seeing the balloons come to life as they are inflated the evening before the parade at 77th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan.

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