published Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

More families to hit the road for Thanksgiving weekend

Motorists travel during rush hour on Interstate 75 near the Highway 153 interchange early Tuesday morning.
Motorists travel during rush hour on Interstate 75 near the Highway 153 interchange early Tuesday morning.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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If you go, try these safety tips:

* Ask a reliable friend or neighbor to keep an eye on your house. Close blinds and curtains and double-check to ensure all windows and doors are closed and locked.

* Place valuables and special documents in a secure place. Make an inventory of everything you take on the road and leave a copy at home.

* Have your car checked by a mechanic before taking long trips.

* Take a cellular phone and keep it with you at all times.

* Avoid driving while you're fatigued.

* Do not use cruise control when driving on any slippery surface.

* Keep at least half a tank of gasoline in your vehicle at all times.

Source: American Automobile Association

Current average fuel cost:

* Regular -- $3.34

* Mid -- $3.49

* Premium -- $3.62

* Diesel -- $3.99

Month ago average:

* Regular -- $3.46

* Mid -- $3.60

* Premium -- $3.73

* Diesel -- $3.85

Year ago average:

* Regular -- $2.87

* Mid -- $3.05

* Premium -- $3.16

* Diesel -- $3.19

Highest recorded average price:

* Regular Unleaded -- $4.11, a record set on July 17, 2008

* Diesel -- $4.85, recorded the same day

Source: AAA Fuel Gauge Report

Family comes first for Debra Headrick, who plans to rent a car for a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to LaFayette, Ga., this year.

"There for a while, we were going home every month, but I haven't seen 'em in three months," she said of her nine children and 10 grandchildren.

Headrick moved with her husband to Houston earlier this year so he could find work, but they were forced to leave the rest of the family behind in Georgia.

She can't drive her truck back to Georgia because it gobbles too much gas. So instead they're renting a Jeep Grand Cherokee for the 14-hour drive to the family reunion.

"We wanted to save up until Thanksgiving, because rental cars are expensive," she said.

Stories of families separated by the recession are growing more common, but the number of Americans making Thanksgiving travel arrangements is increasing nonetheless, according to AAA.

This year, AAA predicts that 42.5 million travelers will take Thanksgiving trips of 50 miles or more, an increase of 4 percent from the 2010 holiday and the highest number of travelers since 2007.

With money tight over the past few years, many Americans have put off travel plans but now are planning to take long-delayed trips this year, according to AAA's Thanksgiving 2011 travel forecast. But "economic uncertainty and financial constraints are still holding back an immediate release for this pent-up demand," AAA authors were quick to note.

As more travelers prepare to resume the annual trip, some are redoubling efforts to do it cheaply.

Darelene Bearden, a native of Dalton, Ga., is pinching pennies this year on her 12-hour round trip from St. Simons, Ga., to Dalton.

She planned to leave Tuesday for Dalton, spend the majority of the holiday with her family, then hop back in the car at 1 p.m. Thanksgiving Day and return to her daughter -- and newborn granddaughter -- for a Thanksgiving evening snack.

"There's almost no traffic on Thanksgiving Day," which will keep her out of stop-and-go snarls, Bearden said.

Plus, she keeps a 40-mile-per-gallon Honda Civic in the garage for these very occasions and fills her tank using Winn-Dixie's Fuelperks card. Fuelperks alone can cut 50 cents from every gallon of gas, she said.

"I just can't let go of that little car because I can travel home for $45," Bearden said.

Budget-minded automobile travelers such as Bearden will account for about 90 percent of total travel over the holiday because consumers see cars as a more affordable, convenient and flexible way to travel, AAA says.

The number of cars on the road will increase 4 percent over 2010, while air travel will grow by just 1.8 percent this year, AAA says.

In fact, air travel has declined since 2000 as a total share of Thanksgiving traffic, as have bus, train and other forms of travel.

Nonetheless, 1.7 million travelers are expected to pass through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta -- the world's busiest airport -- during the weeklong Thanksgiving travel period, a 3 percent increase from last year.

Today is likely to be one of the busiest, with an estimated 57,000 travelers going through security in the Atlanta airport, or nearly 50 percent more than a typical day.

"We're asking people to come early and have plenty of time," said Louis Miller, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Christina Siebold, director of communications for the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, said that she actually expected a decrease in airport traffic locally.

"Because we're such a heavy business travel market, the week of Thanksgiving is actually slower," Siebold said. "We do anticipate a spike in traffic on Wednesday, but overall this will be slower than average."

In AAA's East South Central region, which includes Tennessee and Alabama, the 19 percent drop in gas prices over the last four months has helped obscure the fact that prices are still 19 percent higher than they were at Thanksgiving 2010, AAA said.

But Ruffin Blackard, who's traveling to Chattanooga from Raleigh, N.C., to visit his girlfriend, isn't fooled by the recent dip in prices.

"It's a $200 trip in gas alone before you do anything else," he said.

To save money, he also plans to bundle house hunting into his holiday visit to the Scenic City, where he wants to locate his new circuit-board training business.

Because he's already taking a 15-hour round trip, Blackard "figured I could take a chance, even with the bad economy, and try to better myself."

The Atlanta Journal Constitution and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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