CHICAGO – Despite plummeting gas prices and unusual last-minute holiday deals on airplane tickets, more people are expected to stick close to home this Thanksgiving.
In fact, the Automobile Association of America says the 41 million Americans expected to take trips at least 50 miles for Thanksgiving is about 600,000 less than traveled last Thanksgiving.
The reason, as a surly economist might say? It's the economy, stupid.
"The economy is in such bad shape. ... They're still really hesitant to take that trip," said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA Chicago.
In comparison, over the July 4 weekend when gas prices were far higher than the same weekend the previous year, the number of travelers dropped just 2.3 percent, she said. At that time, the economic news wasn't as dire as it is now.
Still, some are 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.
Forecasters said travel weather was dry from the Plains through the Southeast, but heavy rain swept southern California early Wednesday.
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.
The Northwest will see partly sunny skies.
For airlines, the lowered fares at a time when they usually can mark them up can't combat the extra fees the struggling industry has tacked on to everything from checked baggage to pillows to in-flight food.
"For a family of four, it's a $100-$150 difference," Mosher from AAA said of the baggage fee, which some airlines charge even for the first bag, with an additional charge for the second.
Mosher said that even with the dropping fare prices, the 4.54 million people expected to fly during the long holiday weekend is 7.2 percent less than the 4.89 million who did the same last year.
In Boston's Logan International Airport, the crowds at check-in counters and security lines were uncharacteristically sparse.
Andres Rivadeneira, 18, an international student at Bentley College, said he arrived for his flight to Miami three hours early. But with few crowds to wade through, he had time to relax and eat breakfast with other Bentley students.
"It was less hectic than I expected," he said, although he added than his ticket was more expensive than usual.
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 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport were also short. Spokesman John Kennedy predicted their Thanksgiving travel numbers will go up slightly to 1.67 million from 1.65 million last Thanksgiving holiday.
Graeme Wallace, chief technical officer for farecompare.com, a consumer airline ticket research Web site, said it may take until after the first of the year before airlines know if the recent fare reductions will put many more people on planes. He said in his recent experience, business flights have been crowded but leisure flights are often half empty.
"With the economy tanking, they're thinking, 'Do I want to spend $400 for a 1,200 mile trip?'" Wallace said.