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Chris Jones

Holiday Travel Crunch Begins

23 November 2005

Whether you're coming or going over this Thanksgiving holiday, odds are good you'll have plenty of company on the highways and in the skyways.

Nearly 40 million Americans are expected to venture far from home over the four-day holiday, and Nevada residents are no exception.

Those driving should expect to see lots of bumpers and brake lights, while those flying will encounter airports rife with crowded parking garages and long security lines.

McCarran International Airport will handle 1.1 million passengers over a nine-day period that began Sunday. That's slightly busier than normal, but this holiday stands out because of who's traveling, said airport spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez.

"Thanksgiving is more about locals leaving," said Sanchez, whose airport normally serves nine visitors for each local resident.

That outbound rush will clog McCarran's already- taxed parking garages. To avoid delays, Sanchez suggests drivers go directly to an economy parking lot along Russell Road.

Travelers should also contact airlines before going to McCarran, since expected weather problems could delay or cancel some flights, Sanchez said.

Tight security, new technology and airlines' financial woes will make air travel more complicated than ever at a time when many take their one big trip of the year.

One year ago, the Transportation Security Administration said travelers waited no more than 22 minutes to clear checkpoints at McCarran.

Still, its Web site cautioned "wait times tend to exceed the historical averages," and Sanchez stressed people should arrive at the airport at least two hours before their scheduled departure if they plan to check bags.

Airlines are also encouraging passengers to buy their tickets on the Internet and print their boarding passes at home, or to use self-service kiosks.

Terri MacKenzie, a 70-year-old nun returning to Chicago, happily selected her seat and printed her boarding pass at United Airlines' self-service kiosk at Reagan Washington National Airport on Monday.

"I'm delighted to do it this way," MacKenzie said. "It saves loads of time."

For the infrequent flyer, there's much to remember even before leaving home.

The TSA bans scissors, small knives and cigarette lighters, and travelers should wear sensible footwear, like loafers, since they'll probably have to take off their shoes to clear security.

Also, those bringing gifts on aircraft should not wrap items because security workers may need to closely inspect some packages.

Such rules mean more opportunities for inexperienced passengers to gum up the works during the busiest travel time of the year.

The Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, predicts 21.7 million people will fly on U.S. airlines between Nov. 19 and Nov. 29, slightly more than the record number that took to the air a year ago. The peak travel time began Tuesday night.

McCarran's outbound travel peak will occur today, with inbound traffic climaxing on Sunday.

One year ago, would-be holiday travelers frequently griped about gasoline prices that hovered around $2.17 per gallon in Las Vegas, or 55 cents more than Thanksgiving week 2003.

This year's late-summer pricing surge has rescinded, however, with Tuesday's average price of approximately $2.34 per gallon falling well below the $2.98 peak set Sept. 9.

That's good news for travelers' pocketbooks, though semi-palatable fuel costs alone won't cause increased highway traffic.

"Gas prices won't deter people from visiting family and friends over Thanksgiving," Michael Geeser, spokesman for AAA Nevada, said Tuesday. "The fact that they've come down is a bonus, but this is a time when people will travel regardless of what they're (paying) at the pump."

More than 285,000 Nevada residents say they'll travel at least 50 miles from home this Thanksgiving, AAA Nevada reported, using data from a national telephone survey of 1,300 adults.

Approximately 85 percent will go by car; another 14 percent will fly, while the rest will take trains or buses.

AAA Nevada's estimate is a 5.5 percent increase from last year and a 2.9 percent jump from Thanksgiving 2003. That growth probably stems from a strong economy and population growth in Nevada, Geeser said.

Nationwide, Orlando, Fla.-based AAA projects nearly 37.3 million Americans will travel this week, up less than 1 percent from a year ago but 3.3 percent better than two years ago.

Many out-of-towners make Las Vegas their Thanksgiving destination of choice, whether it's to visit friends and family -- or check out the craps tables and Celine Dion.

Whatever their motivation, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority expects an average of 281,000 daily visitors this weekend, filling approximately 92.1 percent of the city's 133,604 hotel and motel rooms.

Visitors' nongaming spending this weekend is a projected $175.2 million, up from $164 million a year ago.

Thanksgiving ranked 40th on the list of Las Vegas' busiest weekends in 2004, down from 39th the prior year.

"It's not a Top 10 weekend, but it's still an important one," said John Piet, the authority's senior research analyst. "People tend to travel over holidays, and we've seen modest year-over-year growth over recent Thanksgivings."

The city's growing popularity as a Thanksgiving getaway makes it easy to understand why so many local workers will spend the next 96 hours serving more than just mashed potatoes and cranberries.

JoAnn Tancredi, a 72-year-old promotions clerk at Sante Fe Station, is among the thousands of local service workers who'll spend Thursday on the job taking care of visitors. That's why she enjoyed an early Thanksgiving meal Tuesday evening with a half-dozen loved ones.

"Most of my family is working Thursday," Tancredi said. "But it's fine with me because the people who come here on Thanksgiving, all of our guests, are just wonderful. It's almost like a family (gathering)."

Tancredi today will help give away nearly 70,000 pies to Station Casinos customers, a task she said makes working the holiday a bit more festive.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.