4:57am

Wed November 24, 2010
Around the Nation

More Travelers Hitting The Road This Thanksgiving

Americans crammed into trains, planes and automobiles Wednesday for a wave of Thanksgiving travel, but threatened protests at airport security inspection stations didn't appear to be causing problems.

Smoothly flowing security lines and few protests were reported at some of the nation's largest airports.

For example, at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, there were wait times of 10 minutes or less Wednesday morning at the 43 security checkpoints. The airport expects 1.7 million people to move through its gates through the holiday period ending Monday.

Nonetheless, traveler Josh Arnold got to the airport three hours in advance of his flight to Norman, Okla. Arnold said he was "just not sure how it was going to work and how much time we were going to need."

At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, lines at security checkpoints also appeared to be moving quickly Wednesday morning. Officials said they expected 189,000 passengers to pass through the gates Wednesday.

Ruth Billingsly, 52, also arrived three hours early at the Philadelphia airport for her trip to Los Angeles. "It was a breeze," she said. "I'm really, really early. Maybe I should take a nap."

Wednesday is the loosely organized "National Opt Out Day" -- a day when some travelers plan to opt out of the new full-body scanners at airports. But there were few signs early on that any protest was causing delays.

"You'll be OK. On the other side, there will be nothing but relief and happiness. Get on a plane and go see grandma," said Paul Ruden, a senior vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents.

Crowded Highways

But air travel was far from the only means of transportation facing heavy use Wednesday from holiday travelers. Roughly 39.7 million people will travel by road this year, a 12 percent increase from last Thanksgiving, according to a AAA travel survey of 50,000 U.S. households conducted during the week of Oct. 25.

With more people traveling for the holiday this year than last, the numbers choosing to fly also went up. Just over 1.62 million holiday travelers are flying the skies, a 3.5 percent increase from last year, AAA said.

When they do travel, families are not straying far from home. Those going by car will travel an average of 816 miles over the holiday weekend. Wednesday and Sunday are generally the busiest days for air and road travelers.

AAA attributes part of the increase in travelers to people feeling more confident about the economy and, in some cases, taking Wednesday and Friday off to make the drive.

"The economy is being perceived as turning around," AAA spokesman Michael Geeser said. "They think things are better for themselves, so maybe they are taking an extra day off from work and making it a long weekend."

Weather Woes

Some of those travelers in the upper Midwest could face snowstorms, according to the National Weather Service.

"We do expect the weather conditions to deteriorate across the northern Plains, with heavy snow possible across parts of North Dakota, Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan," said National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Oravec.

In addition, a hectic, hard-hitting storm shut down highways in Idaho and Wyoming and threatened much of Utah with a blizzard Wednesday as travelers in the Rockies dealt with canceled flights and windy, snow-covered roads.

The powerful system moving across the West on Wednesday was expected to push a strong cold front south and east across New Mexico, where wind speeds were to increase steadily through the morning. In northern Arizona, drivers were warned to prepare for wind gusts of 25 to 35 mph with drastically reduced visibility in blowing snow.

On The Road

Elsewhere, some travelers prepared for marathon road trips.

Marie Johnston, 48, was traveling with her parents from Glens Falls, N.Y., to Columbus, Ohio, where her daughter, a recent college graduate, is hosting Thanksgiving in her new house. She took three days' vacation and scheduled an overnight stop in Buffalo, N.Y., where her son attends college, to break up the 10-hour trip.

Grabbing a cup of coffee at a rest stop just east of Rochester, N.Y., the family agreed that cost and convenience were the most important factors to them.

"Partially because of the recession, partially because maybe people feel more secure when they're in their own vehicle, and they have more liberty on where they'd like to go and if they change plans," the legal assistant said.

The family figured on about $100 in gas in their Honda sport utility vehicle -- using a grocery chain's incentive discounts to save on every gallon -- for the 1,250-mile round trip, compared with about $800 for airfare.

For his 15-hour road trip, Michael Sommermeyer, a 46-year-old foreclosure mediation analyst, planned to start Tuesday night. While his children watch the iPad -- and hopefully drift off to sleep -- he and his wife can listen to the audiobook Decision Points by former President George W. Bush.

They have made the drive to his father-in-law's northern Texas house every Thanksgiving for the past eight years. He usually faces snow showers on rural roads and maybe a few car wrecks to get around, but the economics made sense, especially in these tough times, he said.

"It's a lot cheaper for us," he said. "Even if we got a good deal on airfare, it would still be over $200 per person."

Brian McClure, 22, chose to drive from Virginia to his hometown of Paducah, Ky., with his wife, Amber, 21. While cost and convenience were the main reasons to drive, he was relieved he would be avoiding the new screening policies.

"May God have mercy on the first person that does that to us," said McClure, while stopping for a rest outside Richmond, Va., a few hours into his 12-hour road trip. "I don't care if it's $10 a gallon, I'm not going through that."

"I just want to get there," said McClure, who recently returned from two years in the Middle East with the Navy. "This is my first Thanksgiving and first Christmas in three years."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.