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Thanksgiving: Southern Californians traveling like it’s pre-coronavirus

A year after the coronavirus pandemic depressed holiday travel, Southern Californians — and Americans in general — seem poised to once again hit the road, take to the skies and sail the seas for the upcoming autumn and yuletide celebrations.

The travel industry, economic forecasts show, is on track for a strong rebound from last year, when the pandemic forced folks to hunker down at home, with holiday travel in particular set to look more like 2019 than 2020.

Or at least in overall numbers.

While the Auto Club of Southern California has said it expects Thanksgiving travel throughout the region to be the second busiest of all time, the modes of transportation will differ from the banner year of 2019, with the coronavirus continuing to bolster an already strong preference for cars over airplanes.

Traveling could also be plagued with added stress because of health requirements: Face coverings. Proof of vaccination or negative tests. Temperature checks.

And even though increasing vaccination rates seem to have played a role in boosting people’s comfort with traveling, public health and elected officials have fretted in recent weeks that crowds converging on airports, bus terminals and even train depots could portend another winter surge — though if post-Halloween trends continue, the prevalence of inoculations could make it far less deadly than 2020.

“COVID cases are beginning to rise,” Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted earlier this month. “Winter months means people indoors & more possibilities for spread.

“The unvaccinated are now almost 7x more likely to get COVID, 10x times more likely to be hospitalized — and 18x more likely to die,” he added. “Keep your immunity UP. Get your booster.”

That could be key — since a lot of people will travel this winter. At least if Thanksgiving is any indication.

AAA projects that 4.4 million people throughout the region will take trips of at least 50 miles this holiday, nearly reaching 2019’s 4.5 million record. Travel this year is up 16% from Thanksgiving weekend 2020, the auto club added.

Airports around the region, likewise, are seeing up to double the amount of passengers as this time last year.



Although air travel, cruises, buses and trains are seeing more people this year compared to last year, AAA Los Angeles spokesman Doug Shupe said, most people are hitting the roads in their own cars.

“For every holiday, car is the No.1 mode of transportation because it’s most economical,” Shupe said. “Even with higher gas prices, it’s still cheaper to drive than buy airline tickets.”

People like the convenience of being able to leave and return when they want, he added, and feel more comfortable and in control in their own vehicle, pandemic or not.

But while 3.8 million of the foreseen travelers are expected to go by car, according to AAA, 494,000 will travel by air, and 79,000 will use buses, cruise ships and other means.

Globally, holiday air travel appears to be rebounding as well, though still not at pre-pandemic pre-pandemic. The analysis firm IBM Institute for Business Value, for example, found that in a recent survey, the number of people planning to travel by air this year is 21% lower than in 2019. But those numbers last year were 39% below 2019 levels, the survey found.

And overall, 39% of respondents said they plan to travel to visit friends and family during the holidays — 11 percentage points better than in 2020.

With the increase in folks planning holiday getaways, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that only those who are fully vaccinated travel; and those who are not, the CDC has said, should get tested for the virus before and after a trip. The best way to minimize COVID-19 risk while gathering during the holidays, the CDC added, is to get vaccinated, if eligible.

The CDC on Friday, Nov. 19, reported nearly 8,000 new cases of COVID-19 this week in Los Angeles County, 2,810 in San Bernardino County and 1,781 in Orange County.

LA County public health officials are also wary of potential post-Thanksgiving surges, as virus transmission risk is substantially high in the county, with an average daily rate of nine cases per 100,000 people reported this week.

December 2020 was the deadliest month of the pandemic, after all, with many gathering in large groups for the first time since the public health crisis started.

Los Angeles International Airport expects 2 million people to pass through its terminals from this week to Nov. 30, according to airport officials, marking the busiest stretch of traffic there since early 2020. That’s double the amount of people who were going through LAX this time last year.

Passenger volume at Ontario International Airport, meanwhile, will nearly equal pre-pandemic numbers, officials there said. That airport’s peak day will be the day before Thanksgiving. Ontario airport expects more than 180,000 passengers over the holiday week compared to accommodating just half that many people last Thanksgiving.

More than 86% of plane seats at Ontario are filled for the holiday, said Alan Wapner, president of the Ontario Airport Authority Board of Commissioners, even though officials estimate there will be about 1% fewer travelers than in 2019. Airlines there, however, are also offering about 3% fewer seats than two years ago.

Long Beach Airport expects 64,000 passengers to pass through from Monday, Nov. 22, to Sunday, Nov. 28, said spokeswoman Kate Kuykendall. That’s five times more than last year.

“We are are seeing a steady increase in arriving and departing passengers, beginning in October,” Kuykendall said. “It’s definitely a big change from the early days of the pandemic, when our airport was basically empty.”

LGB expects to fill 75% of the 86,000 scheduled seats this week, she added.

But “we still have a long ways to go in our recovery,” Kuykendall said, as numbers are still down 10% from what they were around Thanksgiving 2019.

John Wayne Airport in Orange County also anticipates getting back toward regular numbers this year, said JWA spokeswoman AnnaSophia Servin, after a 36% decrease in Thanksgiving week passengers from 2019 to 2020.

Of course, traveling also has economic and financial consequences — both good and bad.

U.S. Travel Association, a national nonprofit organization representing and advocating for all aspects of the travel industry, forecasts domestic leisure trips will account for $838 billion in spending this calendar year. That’s about 15.5% below 2019, when such spending approached $1 trillion. But the 2021 forecast, if realized, would represent a 23% increase from last year.

But then, for those who prefer the open road, there are the gas prices.

The afternoon and evening on the day before Thanksgiving will be the busiest time for Southland freeways, according to transportation analytics firm INRIX. That company projects that the 5 Freeway south from Colorado Street to Florence Avenue will be the most congested — with traffic levels 385% higher than on normal days.

All outbound freeways are likely to be congested on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.

The top destinations for Southern California Thanksgiving travelers are San Diego, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Santa Barbara.

But gas is at more than $4.50 a gallon on average, according to AAA, meaning one stop to fill up could run you around $70. There are also the unanticipated costs of driving — which air travelers avoid — such as dead batteries, flat tires and locking your keys in the car.

AAA anticipates providing roadside assistance for 52,000 Southern California motorists during the Thanksgiving season, Shupe said.

Still, AAA said, most people will continue traveling by car.

But whether you plan on driving or flying, the message for holiday travelers is clear:

Buckle up. It’s going to be crowded out there.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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Source: Orange County Register

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