The economy is struggling, gas prices are up and temperatures are down, but it’s the (sing along here): longest travel season of the year.
Apparently, it takes a lot more than drooping financial circumstances to keep travelers off the roadways during this 11-day traffic holiday, which began Friday and runs through Jan. 2. Whether by land, air or ... well, any other forms of transportation available in East Tennessee, year-end holiday travel volume is expected to be the second-highest in the past decade, according to AAA East Tennessee.
More than 5 million drivers will be on the road during the period in the four-state regional area that includes Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi. That’s a 1.2 percent increase over last year. AAA credits a mix of slight economic recovery and cabin fever for the inspiration behind that “Travelin’ Jones” that typically begins as the year cycles to its end.
“We do not have specific numbers for Johnson City or the Tri-Cities, but if I had to guess, based on our local economy, we will get a lot of travelers because East Tennessee is a crossroads,” said Don Lindsey, AAA East Tennessee public affairs director. “Most folks will be traveling by car. Here in East Tennessee there are pockets of areas that are better off economically than others, so it’s difficult to forecast who will be traveling and who won’t.”
Lindsey did stress the fact that there will be a high volume of motorists passing through the area during the holiday season.
“There will be people that are tired and a little bit frazzled — so we need to keep that in mind.”
Gas prices in Tennessee on Friday ranged from a low of $2.86 a gallon for regular unleaded in Memphis to $3.62 a gallon in Knoxville. In Johnson City, the lowest prices were found at Sam’s Club and Kroger at $2.93 and $2.96, respectively. The highest prices for a gallon of regular unleaded hovered around $3.19 at numerous locations around town.
Johnson City resident Rachel Singleton prepared for her weekend journey on Friday by filling up at One Stop Convenience Store on South Roan Street.
“My husband and I, and our two dogs, are leaving for Greensboro, N.C., tonight to see family,” she said. “We will be seeing my mom and dad. The plan from there is to go to Charlotte to see my husband’s family.”
When asked if the economy has affected her travel plans our those of her friends, she said most of her friends chose to travel by car this holiday season, rather than flying or by other means.
Tri-Cities Regional Airport Marketing Director Melissa Thomas said Friday she did not immediately have the final numbers to show the total number of travelers choosing to fly. However, she did say she has seen a “positive trend.”
“For the past several months, our load factors (ratio of number of passengers to available seats) have been increasing over the same time last year,” Thomas said. “I think we’re seeing a bounce back from previous years. We anticipate that this will be a good holiday travel period for us.”
Meanwhile, it’s easy to forget that local travel agents have helped arrange travel during the holidays months and months in advance. Though many agents may already have taken flight themselves Friday, Angie Phipps, Johnson City’s Summit Travel manager was at her post.
“We’ve had a lot of people booking family trips, Caribbean cruises, ski trips and flights to resorts,” she said. “But most of those booked for this time of year made arrangements a long time ago. There are many more families and groups that have booked travel than individuals. Our overall number bookings have dropped slightly, but the volume — the number of people traveling hasn’t changed.”
When it comes to weather, motorists and holiday revelers will not likely see snow on Christmas Day. The chance of precipitation is forecast not to exceed 20 percent through Tuesday, but overnight temperatures for the next four days will be below the freezing mark, ranging from 25 to 30 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in Morristown.
On the other hand, the high temperatures will range from the high 40s to low- to mid- 50s. Look for partly cloudy conditions each day except for Monday when the skies are forecast to clear. The National Weather Service is forecasting a zero-percent chance of rain today, a 10-percent chance Sunday, a zero-percent chance Monday and a 20-percent chance Tuesday.