The mode of transportation Coloradans will use to trek to Thanksgiving gatherings this year is forecasted to mirror national travel patterns — with an uptick in automotive travel and a slight decrease in air travel — while airlines attempt to lure travelers to the skies with lower ticket prices.
AAA released its annual Thanksgiving travel forecast on Tuesday, which appears to paint a contradictory picture for travel behavior. Gas prices are expected to be at historic highs for this time of the year and airfares are lower than normal, yet travelers are still flocking to the roadways.
Based on research from IHS Global Insight, an Englewood-based business information provider, the not-for-profit auto association predicts 43.6 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles by automobile this year, a 0.7 percent increase from last year.
AAA Colorado expects the state's gas prices to be 10 cents higher than last year's $3.40 average.
"The biggest factor that we've seen is that consumer spending and disposable income is still kind of strained, limiting their ability to have discretionary spending," said Shane Norton, travel and tourism consulting director at IHS. "While airfares are relatively more affordable, the level of flexibility and the control over the spending is why they choose to drive."
Air travel bottomed out during the recession in 2008 but has since rebounded, leveling off over the past few years. AAA Colorado predicts a 1.8 percent decrease in air travel for state residents.
Denver International Airport officials plan to release their Thanksgiving travel projections next Tuesday. They expect those numbers to be in lockstep with the levels of recent years, hovering around the 1 million passenger mark between the Tuesday and Monday that bookend Thanksgiving.
In 2011, a total of 1,013,313 travelers passed through DIA during Thanksgiving week, with travelers starting or ending their trip at DIA comprising 54.6 percent of the traffic.
The airport's most recent year-to-date traffic figures show a slight increase over last year, which DIA spokeswoman Laura Coale hopes will hold through the holidays.
"Our traffic numbers are about on par for this year," Coale said. "We are expecting the same busy holiday week as we have had the past few years."
Colorado residents who haven't yet made holiday travel plans could capitalize on some low, last-minute airfare.
" Denver is dirt cheap right now," said Tom Parsons, who operates bestfares.com, "because you've got Spirit coming in there right now and Frontier being more competitive than normal."
Parsons said the 21-day advance window is usually when the cheapest airfares can be found, but that most of the major airlines are currently offering affordable three-day advance prices on holiday travel.
Norton recognizes a cautious optimism percolating in Americans' spending habits, which he speculates may hit the travel industry before other industries.
"What we think is notable from a bigger picture is that it seems that from consumer confidence indicators, they all seem to be trending up fairly significantly," Norton said. "Air travel may see a spike ahead of the recovery, in anticipation of this."
Kristen Leigh Painter: 303-954-1638, email@example.com or twitter.com/kristenpainter
DIA travel tips
Source: Denver International Airport