CHICAGO (STMW) – The number of Americans traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday will increase 11.4 percent from last year, with an estiamted 42.2 million taking a trip of at least 50 miles, according to the AAA auto club.

Trips by motor vehicle remain the most popular for holiday travel, with 94 percent, or 39.7 million people reaching their destination by driving, a release from AAA said. Leisure air travel is expected to account for four percent of overall travel, with 1.62 million holiday flyers, an increase of 3.5 percent from last year’s 1.57 million.

The 2010 Thanksgiving holiday travel period is defined as Wednesday, Nov. 24, through Sunday, Nov. 28.

The total number of Illinois travelers will be 2.25 million, with 2.1 million driving and 87,000 flying, the release said. In Indiana, there will be 906,000 total travelers, with 851,000 driving and 35,000 flying. Both states will be are up nearly 12 percent in total travelers over Thanksgiving weekend 2009, according to AAA.

Gas prices will remain high as travelers take to the roads. In Illinois the average cost of a gallon of unleaded is $3.05 and in Indiana $2.90. As of Wednesday morning, the average cost in Chicago was $3.10, according to AAA, up from $2.78 a year ago.

“While Americans remain cautious with household budgets and discretionary spending amidst high levels of unemployment, many are in a better financial position this Thanksgiving than a year ago,” AAA regional president Brad Roeber said in the release. “This improvement, along with a strong desire to spend time with friends and family, is expected to propel a significant increase in Thanksgiving travel.”

While the forecast for an 11.4 percent increase is significant, the increase in the number of travelers by 4.3 million is less than half the volume lost from 2007 through 2009, AAA says. Moreover, this year’s expected 42.2 million travelers remain almost 30 percent below the 2005 peak of 58.6 million.

Based on a survey of traveler intentions, the average distance traveled by Americans this Thanksgiving holiday is expected to be 816 miles, virtually the same as a year ago (815). Median spending is expected to be $495, roughly the same as last year ($494). Thanksgiving travel tends to be less expensive compared to other holidays because of its emphasis on the meal and the gathering of friends and family. A majority of survey respondents (82 percent) reported the main purpose of their trip was to visit friends or family.

According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index, airfares over Thanksgiving are expected to increase four percent from last year with an average lowest round-trip rate of $176 for the top 40 U.S. air routes.

AAA has forecast an increase in travel for each of the travel holidays this year.

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