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HOLIDAY TRAVEL TO INCREASE
AMERICANS TO DRIVE, FLY IN RECORD NUMBERS TO MARK THANKSGIVING

Americans are expected to pack their bags in record numbers during the upcoming Thanksgiving travel period, and Western New Yorkers will join the rush to visit family and friends.

An improving economy and decreasing travel jitters from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are expected to produce crowded roadways, airports and bus and rail terminals, likely eclipsing 2000's record-setting travel volume.

The national office of the American Automobile Association predicts 37.2 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home in the next week, a 3.1 percent increase from Thanksgiving last year, when 36.1 million hopped into the car or climbed aboard an airplane, train or bus.

"Travelers' increased confidence in both the economy and airline security will make this an extremely busy travel holiday," said Sandra Hughes, AAA Travel vice president, who noted the pent-up urge to travel is not being dampened by higher costs.

Gasoline prices are up an average of 47 cents per gallon; air fares have increased 2.6 percent; and hotel rates have climbed 5.7 percent; but Americans still are raring to go.

"More of us will head for Grandma's this holiday than did even in 2000 -- considered the high-water mark for the travel industry," Hughes added.

As is the Thanksgiving tradition, highways and byways will carry the bulk of the travel crowd, with 30.6 million, or 82 percent of all travelers, going via motor vehicle. That's up 2.9 percent from the 29.8 million who drove for a long-distance turkey dinner last year.

Another 4.6 million -- 12 percent of holiday travelers -- will head to the airport, up 4 percent from the 4.4 million that flew last Thanksgiving. And 2 million others will climb on a train, bus or boat, up from 1.9 million one year ago.

"The local picture mirrors what we're forecasting nationwide. There is a strong, renewed interest in holiday travel, with several indications this will be a record-breaking travel period," said Diane Dibble, spokeswoman for AAA of Central and Western New York.

Nationally, gasoline prices are averaging $1.97 for a gallon of self-serve regular fuel, down about 6 cents a gallon over the last two weeks. Western New Yorkers heading to the pump before this week's long drives will find an average price of $2.12, up from $1.61 for Thanksgiving week last year.

"The prices are higher, but it's obviously not impacting people's plans to travel," Dibble said. "We're down from the $2.15 average high in June, so we seem to have the worst of the prices behind us."

Lisa Gullo, a local manager for Liberty Travel, said the demand for December getaways indicates the Thanksgiving momentum should carry over through the Christmas travel period.

"A lot of our prime vacation packages have been sold out for a while. People are really interested in Mexico, Florida, the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean and Las Vegas," Gullo said.

She said the holidays are also a harbinger of strong 2005 traffic.

"People are ready to travel again. Their worries are behind them. We're already getting heavy bookings for spring vacations and inquiries about summer destinations," Gullo added.

Buffalo Niagara International Airport, which handled 4.38 million travelers in 2001, despite the terrorist attacks, expects to break that record this year. Through October, the year-to-date passenger count is 1.9 percent behind '01, but a strong November and December is expected to push the year's total over that mark.

While all that traffic is great for the airport and its airlines, this week's expected crowds and inevitable delays could prove trying at times.

"The airlines have advised us that flight reservations for Thanksgiving week are up, and as such, the airport will be a busy place," said Lawrence M. Meckler, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

"To avoid delays, passengers should arrive at the airport in plenty of time to check in and clear security in order to catch their flight."

The NFTA suggests arriving at the airport at least 90 minutes before the scheduled departure time. To help ease wait times at security checkpoints, which often exceed 20 minutes on nonholiday weekdays, the federal Transportation Security Administration will begin screening passengers at 4 a.m. this week.

Lawrence Fogg, the agency's acting director at the Buffalo airport, said passengers can help reduce delays by being prepared for security screening.

"Passengers need to continue to be vigilant about what they are taking through the security checkpoint," Fogg said.

The agency's "do's and don'ts" for holiday travel include:

Don't carry wrapped gifts in carry-on or checked luggage.

Don't pack film in checked luggage because it can be damaged by electronic screening.

Take off all coats, jackets and sweaters while waiting to pass through the checkpoint.

Don't wear clothing and accessories with metal trim that will set off detection devices.

Be aware of what items are allowed in carry-on and checked baggage.

For complete information on security protocol, visit the agency's Web site at www.tsa.gov or at www.buffaloairport.com.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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