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Chris Jones

Tourism: Taking One For The Turkey

24 November 2004

Whether their journeys take them over the river and through the woods or over the desert and through an airport, there's little question Americans have a heavy appetite for travel come Thanksgiving weekend.

This year is no exception, which should translate into a busy several days at U.S. airports, on the nation's highways and even in Las Vegas hotels, sources said Tuesday.

Whether more Nevadans will take to the road remains uncertain, but AAA expects nationwide travel volume to approach 37.2 million people this weekend. If that proves accurate, it would be the first time Thanksgiving travel has exceeded levels set prior to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"That forecast tells us two things: People are more secure about traveling abroad and leaving home, and they're more comfortable with the price of traveling," AAA Nevada spokesman Michael Geeser said Tuesday.

AAA's forecast is based on a telephone survey conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America. The heaviest Thanksgiving travel -- 41.6 million Americans -- occurred in 1995, the Orlando, Fla.-based travel agency said. This year is expected to top 2000's total of 36.8 million.

Last year, AAA estimated 36.1 million Americans planned to travel more than 50 miles from home for Thanksgiving. It expects more than 270,000 Nevadans will do the same this year, or about 6,700 less than were expected a year ago.

One gallon of gasoline cost $2.17 in the Las Vegas area on Tuesday, up 55 cents from a year ago. Increased gasoline prices could have some effect on this year's reduced Nevada estimate, though Geeser said fuel costs have not been a significant detriment to holiday travel so far.

"When it comes time for Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, the priority is more toward seeing family and friends than it is to save a few bucks at the pump," Geeser said.

McCarran International Airport is also braced for a busy holiday period with approximately 1.25 million passengers expected over an 11-day span from Nov. 19, the Friday before Thanksgiving week, and Nov. 29, the first Monday after the holiday.

Spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez said Thanksgiving is consistently the busiest holiday period at McCarran because its fixed schedule typically affords travelers an extended four-day weekend unlike date-specific holidays like Christmas or Independence Day, which draw fewer travelers in years when they occur midweek.

Sanchez said Thanksgiving is a popular time for locals to leave town, as evidenced by full airport parking garages. McCarran's long-term garage could sell out as early as today, and Sanchez advised travelers to arrive at least 90 minutes to two hours before their departure to allow for seasonal crowds.

When possible, travelers should use carry-on baggage only to avoid lines at ticketing counters, Sanchez said. Those carrying holiday gifts this weekend should not wrap them since security workers could be forced to open the packages.

Local hotels and motels should be slightly busier this Thanksgiving weekend, says a Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimate. Approximately 272,000 daily visitors are expected in town from Thursday through Saturday evening, enough to fill 92.5 percent of the city's nearly 129,000 guest rooms, Kevin Bagger, the convention authority's research director, said Tuesday.

A year ago, Las Vegas averaged 264,000 visitors and 89.6 percent occupancy over the same period, making Thanksgiving the 39th busiest weekend of 2003. This year's expected 3 percent increase is likely the product of an improved U.S. travel market, Bagger said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said airports, runways and skies will be most crowded on Tuesday and today, with more than 51,000 flights each day.

Spokesman Greg Martin said the nation's aviation system, which has endured a 52 percent spike in delays this year because of bad weather and rising demand, should operate more efficiently than it did a year ago. That's because some of the largest airlines, including AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have "de-peaked" their schedules, or smoothed out the flow of traffic more evenly throughout the day, particularly in busy cities such as Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta.

However, American, the nation's largest carrier, is advising travelers to get to the airport more than 90 minutes before flight time due to anticipated long waits at security checkpoints and check-in.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.