BOISE – When families are decking the halls this holiday season, they may need to set an extra plate or two on the table.  According to AAA, nearly 113 million Americans, including 646,000 Idahoans, will take a holiday vacation this year – an increase of 3% from a year ago and a near return to pre-pandemic levels.

“This year’s projections are a continuation of the strong travel numbers that we’ve seen for every major holiday this year.  The difference is that this time around, lower gas prices will finally lend a helping hand,” says AAA Idaho spokesman Matthew Conde.  “Even with higher prices in some aspects of travel, most people are following through on their plans to cap off the year with some holiday cheer.”

The year-end holiday travel period is defined as December 23 to January 2.  Because Christmas and New Year’s Day both fall on weekends, both will be long holiday weekends.

Friday, December 23 will be the busiest day on the roads as commuters share the drive with holiday travelers, and it will also be the busiest day at the airport.  The busiest return day will be Monday, January 2.  Peak traffic congestion will occur between 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM each day.

In addition to visiting family and friends, warm weather destinations will take center stage this holiday season, including theme parks in Florida and Southern California, Arizona, and more.  Other travelers will take advantage of winter solitude in the National Parks.

AAA says that while consumer confidence is down from a year ago due to inflation and other economic uncertainty, consumer spending remains strong, with travel at the top of the list.

Planes, trains, and automobiles – travel numbers by mode

About 102 million Americans, or 90% of the total travelers, will load up in the family sleigh for a holiday vacation, a 2% increase from a year ago.

“It’s not too late to swing by your trusted mechanic for a quick tire check and to top off fluid levels,” Conde said.  “A pre-trip inspection can help avoid some ‘bah, humbug’ moments at the roadside.”

More travelers will be sharing the sky with Santa’s reindeer this year, with air travel expected to soar by 14% from a year ago.  Demand for flights has increased despite higher ticket prices as more passengers grow comfortable with the idea of saving time and avoiding slick roads by flying.

“Airlines have really tried to ‘right-size’ their fleets based on projected demand and current staffing levels.  But there’s always the possibility of a chain reaction of delays and cancellations, especially when you throw winter weather into the mix,” Conde said.  “Avoid checking luggage if you can, but always keep a change of clothes, important documents, and medications in your carry-on bag.  Download the airline’s app to stay on top of any changes to your itinerary.”

AAA recommends arriving at the airport at least two hours before your flight to get through long TSA screening lines.

“We don’t believe that there will be many last-minute savings on airfares this year,” Conde added.  “It’s best to get your flights booked as quickly as possible, as more itineraries involve connections through a major hub.”

Other modes of travel, including bus, rail, and cruise ship, will also approach pre-pandemic levels with a 23% increase this year.

Hotel rates and airfares rise slightly, while car rentals slide

While travelers have been faced with higher prices for their trips this year, year-end prices will be similar or even better than a year ago.  Hotels with 2 and 3 Diamond AAA designations will be an average of 3% more expensive than a year ago, and the average airfare for the top routes is up 6% from a year ago.  Now that rental car inventories have improved, average daily rates are projected to drop 19% from a year ago.

Gas and crude oil activity

Falling gas prices will help to make the season merry and bright.  Today, Idaho’s average price for regular is $3.79 per gallon, which is 15 cents less than a week ago and 48 cents less than a month ago.  Meanwhile, the national average currently sits at $3.26 per gallon, which is 14 cents less than a week ago and 52 cents less than a month ago.  Today, the Gem State ranks 7th in the country for most expensive fuel.

“Fuel demand is about 605,000 barrels per day less than a year ago, and gasoline stocks have been increasing.  Combine that with lower crude oil prices, and we’re getting some savings at the pump,” Conde said.  “However, demand is likely to increase in the run-up to the holidays, and prices may level off in the coming weeks.”

The West Texas Intermediate benchmark for crude oil is currently trading near $74 per barrel, which is about $12 less than a month ago and $3 more than a year ago.

Here’s a look at Idaho gas prices as of 12/12/22:

Boise – $3.86

Coeur d’Alene – $3.31

Franklin – $3.75

Idaho Falls – $3.80

Lewiston – $3.79

Pocatello – $3.84

Rexburg – $3.83

Twin Falls – $3.85