"The year-to-year decrease in the number of travelers this holiday season reflects the continuing impact that the economic downturn has had on many Americans," said Jennifer Cook, AAA Washington spokeswoman. "However, the total volume of travelers this Christmas will still be the third largest we've seen since 2000."
Nearly 63.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during over the holiday travel period, a 2.1 percent decrease from last year's total of 65.3 million. This is the first decline in Christmas holiday travel since 2002.
About 82 percent of all holiday travelers intend to travel by automobile, a 1.2 percent drop from people who drove last year. Motorists will find gasoline prices in the Seattle to Everett region averaging $1.80 per gallon of self-serve regular unleaded gasoline, $1.34 less than a year ago and 86 cents less than a month ago.
Train and bus travel will get a 0.7 percent bump this holiday season with more than 3.33 million Americans expected to use those services this year.
Airlines, however, will see the steepest decline, 8.5 percent, in holiday travel with about 8.1 million people traveling by airplane this holiday season. Many carriers recently have either cut fares or, at least, have maintained prices even into mid-December.
"There's still plenty of availability -- and some great prices on holiday airline tickets," said Brian Ek, spokesman for online travel agency Priceline.com. "We took a look at fares and found that depending on the route and travel dates, fares can be down as much as 10 percent over last year."
Tickets for flights from Seattle to Los Angeles average $138 this December, up only $8 from tickets snatched up in November, according to FareCompare.com. Last year, the same flight cost $175 on average. The price of tickets from Seattle to New York has remained almost unchanged since late September at $240. That's down from $255 to $260 last year.
Air travelers, however, should keep in mind that many airlines instituted checked baggage fees this year as fuel prices soared. And previously complimentary services such as beverages and snacks also may have a price tag attached.
Passengers who booked Christmas flights early and have seen the price of tickets fall may still be able to get some airlines to give a credit for a future flight or even a refund of the price difference. Changes in fuel surcharges aren't negotiable.
United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines will give passengers credit for the fare difference, and Southwest Airlines offers either a voucher for a future flight or a refund. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines also offer credit, but they impose a $150 ticket-change fee, negating most (if not all) of any potential windfall.
To get a credit or refund for the fare drop, travelers must keep track of the fare for the same flight and cabin class. Check Web sites such as Yapta.com and Travelocity.com, which has a FareWatcher service that can alert passengers by e-mail of any changes. If a passenger discovers that the price of a ticket has dropped (which often happens when the airline holds a last-minute fare sale), the passenger should call the carrier's customer service.
The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.
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