CHICAGO — Holiday travel got off to a soggy start in parts of the country Wednesday as millions of Americans undeterred by costlier gas and airfare set out for Thanksgiving celebrations, but few major problems were reported.
About 42.5 million people are expected to drive, fly or ride trains to their Thanksgiving destinations, according to travel tracker AAA. That’s the highest number since the start of the recession.
“Sacrifice to see the ones you love, that’s what we do,” said John Mahoney, who was driving with his girlfriend 20 hours from New Hampshire to visit his mother and sister in St. Louis. “Americans will still do what Americans do. We travel the roads.”
Mahoney, 44, acknowledged the economy has changed the way he travels, which is why the couple slept in the car instead of getting a motel room when a heavy, wet snowstorm flared up along the New York State Thruway.
The 90 percent of holiday travelers who plan to drive will pay 16 percent more than last year for gas, which reached an average of $3.33 a gallon as of Wednesday, according to AAA.
Air travelers have been hit, too. The average round-trip airfare for the top 40 U.S. routes is $212, up 20 percent from last year. Rail tickets on most one-way Amtrak trips have climbed 2 to 5 percent. Hotel and motel rates also are up slightly.
‘Can’t quantify quality time’
Jake Pagel, 32, a restaurant server from Denver, said he worked longer hours to save money and get bills in order before the holidays.
“We’ve just been working pretty much nonstop for the past few days to make sure rent’s paid before we go,” said Pagel, 32, who was flying from the Denver airport with his girlfriend to see her family in San Jose, Calif.
Pagel said the trip meant he had to give up working during one of the service industry’s most busy and profitable times.
“I think it’s something you can’t quantify in terms of monetary cost,” he said. “I mean, being able to spend quality time with your family is fairly significant.”
Shun Tucker, 33, of suburban Chicago, decided just this week that she’d spend the holiday with family in Memphis and booked a $49 bus ticket for a nine-hour trip south. She didn’t bother to look at airfare.
“It’s about time and money and how it works out,” she said. “And yeah, I could go to the airport, but it’s going to cost me $300.”
Some motorists who tried to get an early start along the Pennsylvania Turnpike found themselves stopped by — or stuck in — a gooey mess after a leaking valve on a tanker truck spread driveway sealant along nearly 40 miles of highway. Officials said at least 150 vehicles were disabled and an unknown number of others were damaged Tuesday night.
“Now we have to turn around and go back home,” Laura Frick, who was traveling from Cleveland to New Jersey for the holiday, told WTAE-TV. “It’s horrible.”
Turnpike workers who peeled up the sticky puddles, then covered them with sand to hasten drying, had traffic moving normally again by Wednesday morning.
Weather wreaks havoc in the East
Travelers also were at the mercy of the weather.
Heavy rains prompted flood warnings and road closures across swaths of the East early Wednesday. Emergency workers in eastern Pennsylvania had to rescue one man from the roof of his car when he was trapped by rising waters.
Snow, meanwhile, mixed with sleet and freezing rain to make for treacherous driving and thousands of power outages across parts of New England and upstate New York. The National Weather Service predicted up to a foot would fall in some areas.
Airports along the East Coast saw minor delays for some arrivals and departures, but the Federal Aviation Administration reported few other early disruptions.
NWS said most of the East Coast rain was expected to clear by Wednesday night, while parts of the Pacific Northwest and northern California also were expecting rain through Wednesday and snow in the Rocky Mountains and other ranges.
The rest of the country was expected to stay dry weather through Thanksgiving.
Holiday dinner more expensive
Damian Buchwald of Buffalo, N.Y., picked up a second job earlier this year and said his new work schedule leaves him without time to travel to Connecticut to spend the holiday with his wife’s family.
This year, the couple and their teenage son, Raven, will celebrate Thanksgiving with his mother, neighbors and friends in town.
“When you can’t travel and people can’t travel to you, you gather your closest friends. And that way nobody has to pay an arm and a leg, and everyone can eat well,” Buchwald said.
But Tammy Pettus, 39, of Lexington, Ala., just couldn’t scuttle this year’s 11-hour drive to visit her grandmother in Oklahoma. Pettus said she loaded her two daughters into her SUV early Wednesday and hit the road, where said she expected to spend about $275 on gas.
“Oh yeah, to go see grandma? It’s worth it,” she said.
Besides, having folks over for dinner is getting more expensive, too.
A 16-pound turkey and all the trimmings will cost an average of $49.20, a 13 percent jump from last year, or about $5.73 more, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, which says grocers have raised prices to keep pace with higher-priced commodities.