The AAA projects that 38.4 million people will travel more than 50 miles from home over the Thanksgiving holiday next week. That is not up much from last year -- only 1.4%. But at least it is up. With a slow economy, high unemployment and oil at $80 a barrel, it would not have been shocking for the group to forecast a drop.
Broken down by mode of transportation, the AAA projects: "The number of travelers by automobile is expected to be 33.2 million in 2009 compared to 32.5 million last year; an increase of 2.1%. The number of travelers by air is expected be 2.3 million compared to 2.5 million in 2008; a decline of 6.7%." The drop in air travel is probably an indication that people are still watching what they spend carefully. The decline is despite the fact that the AAA expects the cost of airline tickets and hotel rooms to drop.
The actual travel numbers will be a critical barometer of consumer spending trends. The average person may simply decide that it is too expensive to venture too far from home for Thanksgiving. If the AAA forecasts are wrong and travel activity actually falls, this could presage a difficult holiday season.
Of course, bad weather might also keep people home. But maybe that will give them time to go to the mall and shop for Christmas.
Douglas A. McIntyre is an editor at 24/7 Wall St.