With a record number of travelers expected to take to the skies and highways for the holidays, authorities say the key will be planning and leaving with plenty of time to spare.
AAA estimates 62.7 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from their home this holiday, 3 percent more than last year.
"One of the things people don’t plan for with every holiday, but particularly with Christmas, is the amount of time it’s going to take to either drive or fly and get through that whole process, especially this year because there’s going to be so many people on the roads it’s going to set new records," said Kim Pappas-Miller, AAA Arizona spokeswoman. "It’s going to be busier than you think."
Despite gas prices that are 38 cents a gallon higher than last year, nearly 51 million people, or 81 percent of all travelers, are expected to drive to their destination, up from 49.4 million last year, AAA said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration expects 410 fatalities on U.S. highways between Christmas and New Years, with 45 percent of them being alcohol-related.
Fourteen percent of travelers, or 8.6 million, plan to travel by air, up 3.5 percent from last year.
Passengers are expected to take advantage of holiday airfares that are down 6 percent compared to 2003, reflecting expanded service by airlines, AAA said.
Officials at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport say travelers should arrive at least two hours before their scheduled departure.
Unlike in years past, airport spokesman Deb Ostreicher said airlines aren’t expecting heavy travel days. Instead, she said the airport will be steadily busy through Jan. 4, after the Fiesta and Insight.com bowl games.
"The one day that’s going to be the worst, we really don’t have that," Ostreicher said. "Traditionally, it’s the black Wednesday before Thanksgiving and two days before Christmas, but people are taking longer time, they’re spreading the travel out more so it’s not that same old thing like there used to be 10 or 15 years ago."
Tempe-based America West Airlines predicts its busiest flights will be today, Thursday and Sunday. It will the same pattern at New Year’s with fuller flights on Dec. 29 and 30 and on Jan. 2, spokesman Carlo Bertolini said.
"We still have seats available but demand is definitely up," he said. The airline recommends passengers use its web check-in 24 hours to 90 minutes before departure times to receive boarding passes. Travelers at Sky Harbor can use the company’s 36 kiosks to speed things up.
While most travelers heed the airport’s warning, some still think arriving two hours early isn’t necessary, Ostreicher said.
"I still am coming across those passengers who think they’re here well in advance because they got here an hour before," she said. "Then they wait in a ticket line for 45 minutes and by the time they make it to security, their flight is leaving in 10 minutes. To those people, I would strongly suggest they just make their whole travel experience a nice and relaxed one and get here two hours early.
Online travel provider Travelocity predicts longer waits than usual at airports because the holidays fall on weekends.
"This holiday is somewhat unusual as both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve fall on Fridays, leading to dense and more highlyconcentrated travel days," said Amy Ziff, Travelocity editor-at-large.
The Valley ranks eighth in Travelocity’s top domestic Christmas destinations. Denver, New York and Chicago took the top three positions.
Pappas-Miller said the busiest driving days will likely be Wednesdays, Sundays and Mondays.
"A lot of people have Friday off so they’re going to leave early," she said. "Because the holiday ends on a weekend, a lot of people might try to take advantage of extra vacation day and not come back until Monday. But I would plan for a lot of traffic between Wednesday and Monday."
Between now and New Year’s, about one third of Arizonans are going to cities in California, AAA said.
"One of the reasons California is so popular is that it’s easy to get to and many Arizonans are California natives who have family that still live there," said George Howell, AAA’s director of travel.
About a third of Arizona travelers are sticking close to home and driving to see friends and family within the state, AAA said. Another third of the state’s residents are traveling to another state or country. AAA says Australia has turned out to be a popular destination this year along with, London,
Rome, Mexico, the Caribbean and Tel Aviv.