What’s 1.4 percent, really? A second look at the Thanksgiving forecast

snow at airportAfter a sharp drop last year, more Americans are expected to travel for the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday, although travel by air will decline. That’s how the play-it-straight AP played the just-released AAA Thanksgiving forecast.

How many more Americans? 1.4 percent, which is statistically insignificant. Oh well.

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What is statistically significant is the number of air travelers who say they won’t fly — down 6.7 percent. (AAA wasn’t the first to forecast a drop. The Air Transport Association predicted a more hopeful 4 percent decline a few weeks ago.

But do any of these numbers mean anything to you?

Kinda.

Let’s look at AAAs findings more closely …

Last year, Thanksgiving travel dropped a precipitous 25.2 percent in the wake of the ongoing housing and financial crisis. This year’s expected increase in travel reflects improved consumer confidence from one year ago, better financial market performance and a growing sense among many consumers that the worst of the global economic crisis is behind us, AAA said.

True, a 25 percent drop is precipitous. But the 2009 numbers don’t suggest there will be a bounce. One percent means it’s leveled off — maybe.

If travel is a barometer of the economy, it just means we’re a long way from the promised recovery.

This year’s decrease in the number of air travelers continues a decade-long trend in which air travel as a percentage of total Thanksgiving travel has declined substantially. Since 2000, the number of Americans traveling by air during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has dropped an astounding 62 percent.

While much of this decrease can be attributed to ongoing economic difficulties, the air travel experience itself has undergone a substantial change since the 1990s with stricter airport security, more frequent flight delays, reduced capacity, added surcharges and fees, all contributing to the decline.

Translation: Americans are sick of flying, particularly during the holidays. (And we probably didn’t need a survey to tell us.)

That also tells me there might be more airfare bargains during the holidays than there were in years past. Lower demand means empty seats. And that means deals!

According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index – a monitor of pricing in 20 popular cities across the US for hotel and car rentals, as well as 40 pairs of cities for air travel pricing – the lowest average published airfares over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend are expected to decrease four percent from last year to an average of $170 per roundtrip ticket.

Car rental rates are down three percent to an average of $44 per day for a mid-size car versus $45 per day last year. Rates for AAA Three Diamond lodgings are expected to be 11 percent less than last year with travelers spending an average of $128 per night. Travelers planning to stay at AAA Two Diamond lodgings will pay 13 percent less than last year; an average of $92 per night.

Well, if this trend holds, you’ll definitely have your Year of the Deal in 2010.

The AAA forecast contained no surprises, but if you read between the lines, you can find a lot of opportunities to save money and plan a more hassle-free trip for the holidays … and beyond.

(Photo: Drust/Flickr Creative Commons)

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