Winter vacation travel will be back in full force, travel groups predict

Winter vacation travel will be back in full force, travel groups predict

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(CNN) — So you’ll be home for Christmas? It seems like a lot of people tell their family “you can plan on me”.

New projections indicate that winter holiday travel is about to come back strong.

AAA estimates that more than 109 million Americans will travel over the long Christmas and New Year week – a number approaching the pre-pandemic record of 119 million Christmas 2019 travelers.

AAA predictions are from December 23 to January 2.

For the more than 100 million people who the AAA predicts will drive, gas prices are falling from highs reached around Thanksgiving. The national average fell to $3.30 on Tuesday from $3.41 a month ago.

AAA said it thinks gas prices “likely won’t have a significant impact on the return of self-driving travel,” and the US Energy Information Administration said last week it expects gasoline prices to fall below $3 per gallon on average for 2022.

At airports

Airlines are expected to carry 6.4 million passengers, AAA said. That’s about triple the number from last year, when the pandemic dramatically curtailed holiday travel.

Transportation Safety Administrator David Pekoske predicted Monday that the Christmas rush will be busy, but the busiest travel day of 2021 has already passed: the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The Transportation Security Administration reported screening 2,451,300 people on November 28. This was about 85% of the volume checked on the same day in 2019, before the pandemic.

Pekoske predicted that December 23 and January 3 will be the busiest days of the winter vacation season.

The Sunday and Monday after Christmas will see “a convergence of travelers returning home from Christmas trips and departing for New Year’s holidays”.

United: prepare for a rush

Travelers crowd the United Airlines check-in area at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday, November 24, 2021.

Jae C. Hong/AP

United Airlines said it was preparing for holiday travel this month to be even busier than the Thanksgiving rush, which set a pandemic-era record.

The airline said it expects to fly an average of 420,000 passengers a day, up from 400,000 daily around Thanksgiving. That’s around 8 million passengers for its holiday period, which United sets from December 16 to January 3.

The airline said it would operate an additional 200 flights per day to handle increased loads.

United are warning that the Thursday before Christmas (December 23) will be the busiest day of this season.

Travel app Hopper also expects December 23 to be the busiest flight day, and it told CNN Travel in an email that the top domestic destinations booked by their customers are New York, Orlando and LA.

Under watch for collapses

Airlines, meanwhile, are under intense scrutiny from Washington after scheduled collapses earlier this year, leaving masses of travelers stranded.

Airlines such as Spirit, Southwest and American have blamed factors such as weather issues and surging from pandemic-era lows.

The leaders of the country’s four largest carriers are scheduled to testify before a Senate committee on Wednesday about how they used their shares of more than $50 billion in federal aid to keep aviation workers on the job.

The American Airlines chief is expected to tell lawmakers the carrier is “aggressively onboarding new hires” to avoid a repeat of thousands of flight cancellations this fall.

“The return of air travel demand has been intense,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker wrote in testimony submitted Monday to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“Like other airlines, we have encountered operational challenges in recent months, which we have endeavored to manage as skillfully as possible and with the utmost care for our customers and our team members,” Parker said.

Should I stay or should I go?

New York's Bryant Park ice rink is just one of the city's many attractions.  Some people might still wonder if they should travel this season while there are still unknowns.

New York’s Bryant Park ice rink is just one of the city’s many attractions. Some people might still wonder if they should travel this season while there are still unknowns.

Christopher Occhicone/Bloomberg/Getty Images

While many people should take action, others might be wondering: what about Omicron?

The new variant, designated the “concerning variant” over the Thanksgiving travel season, adds an extra layer of uncertainty as people prepare for December and January travel.

If you’re vaccinated, you shouldn’t have to change your vacation plans, even with Omicron circulating in the United States, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen said whether or not to travel is a personal calculation.

“There are a lot of unknowns, so I think it depends on people’s individual risk tolerance. There will be people who are okay with the unknowns and who are generally healthy, fully vaccinated and not not so worried,” said Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“But there are other people who, due to their own medical circumstances or risk factors, might feel differently.”