December 17, 2008 / 9:54 PM / in 9 years

Holiday travel to drop for first time since '02

<p>Automobiles wait in a traffic jam on a New York City highway in this file photo from November 20, 2007. REUTERS/Mike Segar</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Christmas holiday travel this year will likely end up as a casualty of the downturn in the economy, with Americans expected to travel less for the first time since 2002, travel and auto group AAA said on Wednesday.

The number of Americans traveling during the Christmas holiday period is expected drop by 2.1 percent from last year’s levels, AAA said.

“Without question, the economic downturn of 2008 eroded the discretionary income many Americans would have spent on travel and, for some, altered their travel plans throughout the year,” AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet said in a press release.

The AAA forecast is based on an online survey of nearly 2,300 adults nationwide, with an additional 5,000 Americans surveyed from the top 10 states of origin in the United States.

“A lot of people who normally travel at this time of year have decided not to go anywhere,” said Angelika Johnson, the manager of One World Travel in Bisbee, in southern Arizona.

“They say ‘money is tight.’ They are not sure that they will have a job next year, a lot of people who own their own small businesses say business is down as the economy is down, and so money is less available everywhere - except for the rich folks who are getting a bail out!”

Johnson, who has been in the business for 23 years, said she’s never seen her business so slow. She estimated business is down about a third from the same time last year.

Airline travel will see the largest decline, with 8.5 percent fewer travelers, according to the survey.

The number of Americans who intend to travel by car will dip 1.2 percent from last year’s levels.

Other forms of travel, such as train and bus, will experience a smaller decline of 0.7 percent from last year, the survey found.

The U.S. Southeast is expected to produce the largest number of both car and airline travelers.

Although a slowing economy is keeping some from traveling, those who are traveling may benefit.

For instance, those traveling by car can expect gasoline to cost them an average of $1.30 per gallon less than last year, AAA said. Hotel costs are also expected to drop, down 16 percent from a year ago.

But those taking a plane will not fare as well, with average prices expected to climb 3 percent.

AAA projected a decrease in travel this year for Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the five major U.S. travel holidays.

Reporting by Rebekah Kebede, Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Marguerita Choy

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