Delays snarl Hudson Valley holiday getaways

Getaway Day affected by Hurricane Sandy

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Travelers in the Hudson Valley and across the country piled into cars, trains and planes Wednesday, the biggest getaway day before the long Thanksgiving weekend.

More than three-quarters of all travelers will have left for their weekend destinations by the end of Wednesday, the IHS Global Insight/AAA Thanksgiving 2012 Forecast said.

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 AAA, rental cars will be hard to find in and around New York, a shortage 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."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he has been working to move 17,000 rentals into the New York metropolitan area, but on Wednesday, a Budget Rental Car representative said cars were sold out at Westchester County Airport in White Plains.

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

Traffic was heavier than usual on the Hudson Valley's major arteries late afternoon and early Wednesday evening, but congestion had cleared by 8:30 p.m. Traffic was moving well on Interstate 287 near the Tappan Zee Bridge, as well as Interstate 95 and the Taconic State Parkway.

All Metro-North rail lines were running on normal schedules, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and local airports reported no major delays. The MTA had additional trains departing from Grand Central Station on Wednesday and planned extra inbound trains ahead of Thursday's Thanksgiving parade.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans traveling for the holiday -- 39.1 million -- will go 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 U.S. vacationers, from 706 miles in 2011 to 588 miles in 2012, according to the study's projections.

That trend also holds true in the mid-Atlantic region -- New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- with a 2 percent decline in pricier air travel and average travel distance of 573 miles.

"Folks are desiring to economize," Sinclair said.

Median spending by holiday travelers nationwide also is expected to fall to $498 in 2012, 10 percent lower than in 2011.

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 Yonkers, the lowest price for a gallon of regular Wednesday was $3.87, according to gasbuddy.com, and the average for New York City was $3.99. In Stony Point, the lowest price for regular was $3.83. AAA reported the average price for regular gas in New York was $3.92 and the national average was $3.43.

In the Hudson Valley, at least a chunk of those road travelers will be on Interstate 87. Though 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 has been running special getaway trains from Grand Central Terminal since 1 p.m. Wednesday. 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 the 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 use "every available passenger rail car in its fleet" for the holiday season. The railroad warned that tickets were likely to sell out on Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the following Saturday and Sunday.

What will vacationers do when they reach their destinations? Time with friends and family remains the No. 1 activity, cited by three-quarters of respondents polled nationwide. That was followed by dining (56 percent) and shopping (50 percent).

In the New York region, one of the 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 past years, 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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