Economy makes for tougher Thanksgiving journeys

Associated Press Modified: November 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm •  Published: November 21, 2012
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CHICAGO (AP) — Millions of Americans embarking on the nation's annual Thanksgiving migration navigated around the sluggish economy Wednesday, many of them having had to sacrifice summer vacations, scour websites for deals or rely on relatives to chip in for airfare.

Accepting there is no quick end to the road out of recession, many said they've had to become savvier or at least hardier travelers — resilient enough to brave a day-long drive with the kids or a long haul by bus. There were other familiar obstacles, like heavy fog shrouding the air hub of Chicago, which sent delays and cancelations rippling around the nation. There was also a labor march outside an entrance to Los Angeles International Airport, but it caused no disruptions.

"Whatever happens happens," said Robert Johnson, a 63-year-old small business owner waylaid on his journey from Fargo, N.D., to Houston by the fog in Chicago, where he was to connect. "You can't do anything about it. It's not in my control. So you try to stay calm and let it go by and it will get better."

He might have been referring to the whims of nature, but his comments neatly summed up the mindset of many travelers buffeted by the economy.

It's not just family finances that are tighter. Airlines struggling to save on jet fuel and other expenses have cut the number of flights, leading to a jump in airfares. Those hitting the roads face high gas prices and rising tolls.

Other than the Midwest fog, few significant travel problems rose up Wednesday, though firefighters had to put out a small fire in the engine of a JetBlue flight that landed at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. No one was hurt.

On the East Coast, the upheaval caused by Superstorm Sandy meant added costs for some travelers.

The storm forced Chris McLaughlin, a 22-year-old senior at Boston College from West Chester, Penn., to reschedule a medical school interview in Philadelphia, which means he has to make an extra trip home next month. He ended up flying home for Thanksgiving on Wednesday, and all told, the change of plans will set him back about $200, he said.

"It killed me," he said of the financial impact of the storm, which also left his parents without power for eight days. "I think we were feeling we could loosen up a little bit (financially), but with Sandy and everything that happened, (people) feel like they can't."

If the nation's travel patterns are any kind of barometer for the state of the economy, the travel forecast for Thanksgiving week suggested a slight upward nudge as people and businesses recover slowly from the 2007-09 recession in which Americans lost nearly a quarter of their wealth.

About 43.6 million Americans were expected to journey 50 miles or more between Wednesday and Sunday, just a 0.7 percent increase from last year, according to AAA's yearly Thanksgiving travel analysis. After a couple of years of healthy post-recession growth, this year's numbers suggest it will take a stronger economy to lift travel demand significantly, the travel organization said.

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