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Holiday driving forecast: Busy with a chance of less pain at the pump

Posted by: Erik Bjornstad

The nation's largest car club, AAA, released its Christmas season driving forecast on December 16th. What's the outlook? Lots more cars on the road, but lower costs to operate them.

holiday drivingAAA does this every year, releasing a series of predictions for the “holiday driving season” based on their past experiences and current observations about the state of contemporary driving.  The big theme that AAA predicts for the 2014 Christmas holiday driving season is that more people will be out on the roads than ever before. 

More travel by road and air

Last year, 94.8 million drivers took to the highways between December 23rd and January 4th.  This year, AAA projects that to rise to 98.6 million, an increase of about 4 percent.  That would make the coming holiday driving season the busiest on record since AAA began tracking this stuff in 2001.

Of course, AAA isn’t counting people who jump in their cars to travel the eight miles to their nearest Walmart for egg nog.  These figures count only those people who will journey 50 miles or more from their home destination.

So more people than ever before will be road-tripping for Christmas. What about air travel? That’s going up, too, with a projected 5.7 million people flying during the holiday period.  That’s an increase of about 1% (57,000) over last year.  More people are flying because it's going to cost them less to do so.  This is driven by low-cost air carriers who have driven down tickets prices across the market to a decrease of 8% over last year.  The average round-trip ticket cost across the top 40 busiest flight routes is now less than $200. Of course, if/when you do book plane tickets to take advantage of this, make sure you know all the fees before you pay.

Costing Less To Travel

More drivers mean congested highways and more stress during what’s supposed to be the season of love and good will.  But there is good news at the same time. Gas prices are a lot lower than they were last year.  As of mid-December, national average gas prices are $2.55 a gallon.  That’s almost 70 cents a gallon less than just last year and are the lowest gas prices since 2009.  In fact, gas prices have fallen for over 80 straight days.

Lower gas costs can help offset the costs of presents this year. Regular financial surveys of consumers calculate that because consumers are spending less on gas, their total disposable increase has increased almost 4 percent. 

So if you go driving for Christmas, how much can you expect to save on gas?  The average holiday road trip during Thanksgiving was about 550 miles round trip, so we’ll assume Christmas travelling is about the same. If your car gets 25 mpg highway, this means you’ll save about $15 in gas costs for the trip. $19 if you get 20 mpg. While that’s not mega bucks, fifteen bucks is fifteen bucks you can spend on something else this Christmas.

Part of the reason for the higher Christmas driving volume is the calendar.  Christmas and New Year’s fall on a Thursday this time, which extends the holiday driving season by one day. The extra length of the season isn’t what causes more people to travel; rather, it’s that they now have an extra day of flexibility to plan out of town trips by car or air.  So more people will be choosing to head to the highways, simply because they have the extra time to.

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This post was published on December 29, 2014 and was updated on December 29, 2014.

Topics: Gasoline