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Published: Sunday, 11/20/2011

42.5M Americans predicted to hit road for holiday

Price of gasoline locally, in U.S. up from last year but below record

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sara Rafac of Sylvania Township fills her car in Sylvania. The average price for a gallon of gas is up over last year at this time, but that doesn't matter to Ms. Rafac. She still plans to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday to visit brothers who live in suburban Chicago.   Sara Rafac of Sylvania Township fills her car in Sylvania. The average price for a gallon of gas is up over last year at this time, but that doesn't matter to Ms. Rafac. She still plans to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday to visit brothers who live in suburban Chicago.
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Sara Rafac travels to Illinois every Thanksgiving with her sister, mother, and stepfather to visit brothers who live in suburban Chicago; the trip Paul and Carol Fleck plan this week to visit Mr. Fleck's aunt in Pennsylvania is not a normal part of their holiday routine.

Both the Rafacs, of Sylvania Township, and the Flecks, from Perrysburg, plan to be among the 42.5 million Americans that AAA, formerly the American Automobile Association, expects to travel more than 50 miles from home during the holiday travel period that officially starts Wednesday.

That's a 4 percent increase over last year, a jump the auto club attributed to pent-up demand after relatively weak travel during the spring and summer holidays.

"As consumers weigh the fear of economic uncertainty and the desire to create lasting family memories this holiday, more Americans are expected to choose family and friends over frugality," AAA said.

Or as Ms. Rafac put it, "We only see them twice a year" -- so the cost isn't really a consideration.

For the gasoline part of the trip, travelers will pay more this year. Although local and national average fuel prices, as reported by the Web site gasbuddy.com, are well below the record highs of early May, they remained 40 to 50 cents a gallon higher on Saturday than they were a year ago.

Even the Toledo area's lowest prices -- a handful of local stations on Saturday charged just under $3 a gallon for self-service regular -- are higher than the local average from a year ago of about $2.80 a gallon.

According to the auto club, fuel and transportation typically account for about one third of Thanksgiving holiday expenses.

And while travel is starting to recover from a major decline dating to 2008, the auto club said people are taking shorter trips: According to its survey, the average travel distance of 706 miles this year will be 13.5 percent less than last year's 816 miles.

Thanksgiving travel historically is frantic because of how the holiday falls in the calendar.

Although travel schedules around Christmas and New Year's Day tend to vary with school calendars and vacation plans, relatively few take vacations for the entire week of Thanksgiving, making the Wednesday before the holiday and the Sunday following it the United States' heaviest travel days of the year.

As usual, the vast majority of travelers are expected to use private vehicles to get where they're going, with only a slight increase in air travel expected during Thanksgiving because of higher airfares and tight seating capacity.

The Flecks said they hadn't given much thought to the amount of company they're likely to have on the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes when they set out for the Allentown, Pa., area on Wednesday -- the destination is what's on their minds.

"We're excited about it," Carol Fleck said of the nine-hour trip she and her husband will make. "It's Paul's aunt, and we haven't seen her in a while."

Ms. Rafac said that although the four members of her travel party tend to share the driving, her mother usually handles the Chicago part because she knows short cuts and side streets that come in handy when the expressways get jammed.

"She's been doing it for 30 years, she should know the way," Ms. Rafac said.

With most construction projects finished for the season, orange barrels should be of relatively minor concern for holiday travelers.

Besides the ongoing I-475 reconstruction in West Toledo, local travelers' two main obstacles are the Wheeling Street bridge replacement in Oregon and the reconstruction of Miami Street at its I-75 interchange near the Rossford-Toledo border. Wheeling is closed at I-280, and both projects require ramp closings.

Although travelers on the Ohio Turnpike may encounter lane closings near Fremont early this week, all lanes are expected to be open by Wednesday, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike also plans to suspend all construction-related lane closings from 3 p.m. Tuesday until 6 a.m. on Nov. 28.

The Indiana Toll Road is currently free of long-term lane closings too.

Meanwhile, as of Saturday long-range weather favored those traveling on Wednesday or later. The National Weather Service predicted showery weather Sunday through Tuesday in northern Ohio, followed by sunny skies and seasonably cool temperatures Wednesday through Friday. No lake-effect snows, a frequent hazard this time of year along I-90 east of Cleveland, were predicted.

But construction, weather, and gasoline prices aren't much of a concern for Colleen Barron, of Jerusalem Township, who said her family's Thanksgiving will be a feast with a neighbor who lives just two miles away.

"It's nice to be home," she said. "It's less cost, and less stress."

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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