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Americans expected to set year-end holiday travel record

About three out of 10 Americans will travel over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period

Passangers await a flight Wednesday in the terminal of Southwest Regional Airport in Albany. AAA The Auto Group is projecting that airline travelers will be down both in Georgia and nationally during the year-end holiday travel period, which is expected to be the busiest on record. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Passangers await a flight Wednesday in the terminal of Southwest Regional Airport in Albany. AAA The Auto Group is projecting that airline travelers will be down both in Georgia and nationally during the year-end holiday travel period, which is expected to be the busiest on record. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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This photo shot by the passenger of a car the Sunday after Thanksgiving shows traffic snarled where Interstate Highway 675 merges into I-75 South below Atlanta. AAA projects the 12-day year-end holiday travel season to be the busiest ever, with 90 percent of the 94.5 million travelers taking to the highways. About 2.7 million Georgia residents are expected to travel by auto during the period. (Staff photo: Jim Hendricks)

ALBANY — More Americans than ever plan to wrap up the year — and greet the new one — on the road.

AAA The Auto Club expects year-end holiday travel, a period that starts Saturday and ends at midnight on New Year’s Day, will see a slight increase from the end of 2012 but enough to set a new travel record for the period.

In all, AAA is projecting that 94.5 million Americans, up 0.6 percent from the 94 million who were on the move last year, will travel at least 50 miles from home during the 12-day period. If the projections hold true, it would be the fifth consecutive year that Christmas/New Year’s travel has been on the upswing.

That means one in three Americans will travel during the holiday period.

“Travel has been on the rebound for the past five years and has finally reached an all-time high for the year-end holiday season,” Jessica Brady, a AAA spokesman, said. “This year, the holiday travel period includes two weekends and provides an extra day for travelers to visit family and friends.”

As usual, the lion’s share of the travel will be on America’s roadways, which 85.8 million people, up 0.9 percent from 2012, are expected to use. That level would mean that about one out of every four Americans was traveling by auto during the period.

Another 5.5 million (a decrease of 1.4 percent from last year) will fly, while 3.1 million, down 4.2 percent, will use other modes of transportation, such as rail, bus and cruise ship. Motorists comprise about 91 percent of all travelers.

And Americans will be traveling farther on average this year, AAA reported. The average distance traveled is expected to hit 805 miles, up 45 miles from 2012, according to the organization’s survey of people who intend to travel.

Median spending will be up $6 this year to reach $765, AAA officials said, with the most popular activities including visiting family and friends, 74 percent; dining, 70 percent; and shopping, 51 percent.

In Georgia, AAA South officials say that 2.7 million people, up 0.6 percent from last year, will travel, with the vast majority, 2.4 million (up 0.7 percent), using roads and highways to get to their destinations. Georgia will also see decreases in air travel (147,325, down 0.4 percent) and other means (105,943, down 1.4 percent).

The swelling of traffic on Georgia roads hasn’t been lost on state public safety officials, who are engaged in the annual Operation Zero Tolerance campaign in which law enforcement statewide is cracking down on impaired drivers.

“You will see troopers, police officers and deputies making lots of stops during this highly visible enforcement period, and if they suspect anyone is driving while intoxicated they will show zero tolerance,” Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Director Harris Blackwood said. “If you are over the limit, you will go straight to jail. No warnings. No excuses.”

In 2012 between Nov. 20 (the start of the Thanksgiving travel period) and Dec. 31, there were 1,119 alcohol-related crashes, which was up from 997 in 2011 and 836 in 2010, Blackwood’s office noted. Those crashes in 2012 resulted in 679 injuries and 20 deaths. From 2007 to 2011, there were 4,169 people killed in crashes that involved drivers with a blood-alcohol content of .08 or higher. Of the 32,367 people killed in traffic crashes nationwide in 2011, 31 percent were in alcohol-related crashes.

“The December holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year, and we are going to keep our roads safe for holiday travelers heading to visit family and friends,” Blackwood said.

A factor that also would impact motorists is pump prices. Brady said that while retail gas prices have risen since a low national average of $3.18 on Nov. 12, most drivers should be able to expect cheaper gas than in 2012.

On Wednesday, the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report had the average cost of a gallon of regular-grade gas at $3.216, 2 cents cheaper than Dec. 18, 2012. While the Georgia average on Wednesday was below the nation at $3.173, that was a penny more than it cost on the same date last year.

Closer to home, the average retail cost of a gallon of gas in Albany on Wednesday was $3.109, 6.6 cents better than a year ago. With some stations posting gas at $2.999, the Albany average Wednesday was the lowest of the state’s eight metro areas, just edging No. 2 Macon, which was at $3.111.