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Holiday travel numbers are back near pre-pandemic figures

People filling cars at a nearly full Wawa
People fill their cars at the Wawa on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond. AAA predicts holiday travel will come near pre-pandemic levels this year. (Photo: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

It’s expected to be another busy season as the number of people traveling for the holidays continues to move toward or surpass pre-pandemic tallies.

VPM’s Megan Pauly spoke with AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesperson Morgan Dean about the numbers — and what to expect on the road.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Pauly: What are the big takeaways for holiday travel this year?

Dean: We're looking at a very similar story to what we've seen with holidays throughout the year, which is higher travel numbers than 2021 and just below the pre-pandemic numbers of 2019.

We're looking at nearly 113 million people traveling for the holidays, up 3% from last year, but still about 5.5% shy of 2019. Still, even though we're below 2019, this would be the third busiest holiday season — if this sticks, which we believe it will — since we started tracking back in 2000.

So, it shows you that we've really seen the return to travel this year for so many different reasons. We saw them dropping with restrictions, lots of foreign countries and lots of places opening back up to where they were before the pandemic, people getting more comfortable with the idea of getting back on trains, and airplanes and all of those things.

And robust travel is what we've seen throughout this year. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, TSA screened more than 2.5 million people at airports across the country. That's the highest number of passengers that they had screened since the pandemic began. That’s a sign of people returning to air travel in big numbers.

It sounds like we’re almost back to pre-pandemic travel levels, but not quite?

That's right. And that's been very much the theme with all of the holidays: Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and end-of-the-year holidays. And when we look at the number of flyers this year, nationally, we're looking at about 7.2 million for the holiday season.

When you look back to 2019, that number was 7.3 million. It’s really close to those figures when you're looking nationwide.

2019 was also a very big year for travel that set a lot of records and a lot of different categories. And in talking with some of our AAA travel experts, they were expecting 2020 to be even bigger. Of course, then we hit the pandemic in March and everything changed. And we've been in a build-back mode with travel since then. So, it's an indication we are getting back to some good numbers that we saw in 2019.

Any Virginia-specific travel trends?

Virginia numbers are fairly similar to what we're looking at nationally.

We're predicting 3.1 million Virginians will travel. That’s up 3% from last year, but still about 5% shy from 2019. Most are going to be going by auto: 2.8 million. Another 169,000 will be traveling by air, up about 12% from last year but down 4% from 2019.

When we look at bus, rail and cruise, it's very interesting. Those numbers are continuing to bounce back. We're up 26% from last year, and actually slightly above what we saw back in 2019. And that's what we've been hearing with our travel advisers, a lot of interest in getting back to doing some of the cruising and people feeling more comfortable to get back on rail.

We're not talking about a ton of people compared to 2019, but it is interesting that we're up a portion of a percentage point over where we were.

And I understand that most of the expected travel this year will be by car. What are the busiest travel days you’re anticipating?

Looking at road travel, Dec. 23 is going to be a busy day. A lot of people get off work, kids usually are pretty much out of school at that point, and people are going to be hitting the roads.

If you are traveling, try and get on the road before 2 p.m. or after 8 p.m. That will help you avoid a lot of that traffic.

We're expecting Dec. 27-28 — as some people do shorter trips and not full week trips — could be very busy as well. Similarly, leave earlier in the day or later in the day. Try to avoid that time period where you might be trapped in some of the evening commutes, especially if you're driving through major metropolitan areas.

And then the big one is coming back on Monday, Jan. 2, a day off for a lot of people. Travel before 3 p.m. or after 8 p.m. You could see a good bit of traffic on the roadways; nationwide, we're expecting that the travel time could be about 25% longer than normal.

Of course, it depends on where you're going. But if you're driving a busy corridor — up or down I-95, up and down I-81, anything like that — you could see some busy times, especially when holiday travelers are on the roads at the same time that you have commutes either going into or coming out of the city.

What’s your travel advice for folks hitting the road this year?

Be prepared on those roads. Know what you're getting into before you get on the road, especially if you're driving through several states. Check that forecast along the route at your destination but also while stopping along the way to see if things have changed.

Make sure you have that winter emergency kit in the car. We all remember the pictures of Interstate 95 last year. That happened at the tail end of the holiday travel season. … Those who had prepared ahead of time were in much better shape.

That's why it's so important to have that emergency kit: It needs to have some items in case your car breaks down. But it also needs items for you and your passengers to be safe and get through it as well. So, for your car, having kitty litter or traction mats in case you are stuck; having one of those jump kits, so that you can jump your battery, or at least have some jumper cables in there. We also want an ice scraper and an ice brush.

For passengers, make  sure you have blankets, hats and gloves, and water and snacks in there in case you're stuck for an extended period of time. And don't forget: When you get into that vehicle, don't dress for what you hope the temperature will be inside the vehicle, dress for the weather outside. Even if you have to take the big parka off and put it in the back seat, you've got it there in the car with you. That becomes a good blanket that can help you stay warm if you need it.

If you've got kids in the back seat, it wouldn't be a bad idea to throw in some crayons or markers and a coloring book. Having those battery backup chargers, too, to try and keep the kids happy and stay on top of information, that’s a great thing.

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Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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