About one in six Americans will travel more than 50 miles this week to eat large amounts of turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie with kinfolk — and they will be paying a lot less for the gas it takes to get there.
Nevertheless, Thanksgiving travel will be 1.5 percent lower than last year because of the continuing flat economy, AAA predicts. But the 43 million who do make the trip represent a substantial increase over 2008, when the Great Recession hit in full force, it says.
Gas prices are the lowest they've been in three years — as low as $3.16 for a gallon of regular unleaded in some places in the Rogue Valley as of late Friday, according to oregongasprices.com. The price for regular a month ago averaged $3.49, it says.
"The gas prices help. People are feeling more confident about getting to their destination and going to other places of interest in the Rogue Valley," says Anne Jenkins of Travel Medford. "Our numbers for hotel occupancy are slightly increased from last year."
Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, is always the biggest air travel day of the year. Medford airport Director Bern Case predicts passenger numbers will climb from 2012, even though the AAA predicts a 3.7 percent drop in travel nationally.
"People better get here early," says Case. "The airlines recommend an hour and a half early, but I suggest two hours, so no one misses a flight."
The airport has one less flight than last year, he adds, but will process the same number of seats and, in addition to coastal cities, will handle direct flights to and from Denver, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
Ashland is seeing a trend starting Thanksgiving Week and going past New Year's of visitors coming from hundreds of miles away — from Portland to San Francisco — to experience the holidays in a rustic small town with good restaurants and non-chain shops, says Ashland Chamber Executive Director Sandra Slattery.
"Ashland evokes the town they grew up in," Slattery says. "They want to have that small-town experience and shop at independently operated stores instead of mass chains. It's very appealing to people in this day and age."
Ashland's holiday season explodes on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, with music and festivities starting at 1 p.m. in the Plaza. Then Santa parades down Main Street from the library to the Plaza at 5 p.m., after which he and Ms. Claus mount the balcony of Alex's Plaza Restaurant to throw the switch for the Grand Illumination, when a million lights adorn all downtown buildings.
More than 10,000 people flood the downtown, then many children traipse to the Black Swan Theatre to sit on Santa's lap, request presents and get their pictures snapped. This year, the festival will go past 7 p.m., an hour later than earlier years, to allow for more perusal of shops.
On the West Coast, AAA predicts more than 7 million will hit the roads or skies, with 37 percent traveling on Wednesday. Ninety percent, or more than 6 million, will travel by car.
In the Pacific region, which includes Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii, 720,000 will fly, down 5 percent from last year. The average trip will be 795 miles. The average amount spent will be $691 per person. The most favored activities, according to AAA, are hanging with family and friends, dining and shopping, in that order.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.