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Record travelers expected this holiday

Samantha Gross
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Marcio Jose Sanchez/APRosa Smith, left, her son Sidney, 5, second from left, husband Sidney, center, son Bradley, center (in orange), from Washington state, walk to the Southwest Airlines baggage claim area at the San Jose International airport on Wednesday.
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NEW YORK ” Americans packed up and headed to airports and train stations hours ahead of time Wednesday to get a jump on what was predicted to be the largest Thanksgiving pilgrimage ever despite rising gas prices and fears of air delays.

Surveys indicated a record 38.7 million U.S. residents were likely to travel 50 miles or more for the holiday period of Wednesday through Sunday, up about 1.5 percent over last year, AAA spokesman Troy Green said in Washington.

Weather caused few if any problems, and travelers’ early starts and planning helped make the first hours of the exodus unexpectedly smooth for some people.

“You hear all the horror stories about how it’s going to be so crowded, but it actually hasn’t been too bad,” Jessica Reese said her flight from Chicago to Columbus, Ohio, in a telephone interview with AP Radio.

Light check-in traffic surprised travelers departing from the United Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

“We were expecting a much longer delay. LAX is infamous for that,” said Charles Gwyer, 70, of Philadelphia. He and his wife spent the night at a nearby hotel before continuing on to Hawaii for a family gathering.

“It’s empty, that’s weird,” Mike Patulo, 23, said at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, where he arrived by 8 a.m. for a 10 a.m. flight to Cleveland. Patulo said high gas costs didn’t affect his travel plans since he doesn’t own a car.

“I haven’t found the madhouse I thought I would find,” Lou Lecalsey, 68, said at Philadelphia International Airport as he waited for a flight home to Green Bay, Wis., after seeing his new granddaughter in Lancaster, Pa.

Along with planning by travelers, airports took steps to move people quickly. Arizona’s Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport had about 400 volunteers on hand to answer passenger questions and help direct traffic, said spokeswoman Deborah Ostreicher.

Still, short lines didn’t mean the whole journey was smooth. Lisa Rosen’s red-eye flight to New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International from San Francisco was delayed for an hour, then she waited 50 minutes for her luggage. “We’re here in one piece. It is what it is,” said Rosen, 51.

About 4.7 million U.S. residents were expected to fly for the holiday, according to AAA, and about 31.2 million travelers were expected to drive in spite of gas prices that were nearly 85 cents more per gallon than they were a year earlier. The national average for regular gasoline on Nov. 16 was $3.09 a gallon, up from $2.23 on Nov. 17, 2006.

“The question becomes ‘Is $10 or $15 more for gas enough to change travel plans?’ and obviously most Americans said ‘no,'” said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport.

AAA has said that despite higher gas prices, hotels, airfares and car rental prices are mostly lower, inspiring more people to travel over the holiday. Car rental rates are averaging 12 percent lower than the same period last year, airline tickets are down about 7 percent and some hotel holiday rates down 3 percent, the organization said.

The weather seemed unlikely to cause any significant delays Wednesday. Michael Musher, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said light snow in the Midwest and light rain elsewhere around the country could cause only minor problems.

Light snow bogged down traffic in parts of Denver, but only two flights were listed as delayed at Denver International Airport, the nation’s fourth busiest. Airport officials spent $31 million on snow removal equipment this year, following a powerful storm last December that shut the airport down for two days.

David Miller and his family from Mansfield, Texas, were concerned about rain delays at their destination of Detroit, but 10-year-old Nicolas wanted something different. “I want to play in the snow, play snow football.”

Amtrak said several trains were sold out Wednesday. Holiday ridership was expected to be least as high as last year, when Amtrak carried more than 600,000 passengers from the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to the Monday after, said spokeswoman Tracy Connell.

Amtrak expected more than 115,000 riders Wednesday, about a 70 percent increase over a usual Wednesday, spokesman Cliff Cole said.

Travelers trickled into New York’s Pennsylvania Station before dawn, including Carrie Seligson, a 38-year-old construction worker, who got to the station an hour before her departure on one of the earliest trains to Washington, where she was going to spend the holiday with her family and attend her 20th high school reunion.

“There are too many people later in the day, and the train gets too crowded,” said Seligson.

Associated Press writers Brock Vergakis in Salt Lake City; Matt Joyce in Grapevine, Texas; Suzette LaBoy in Miami; Janet Frankston Lorin in Newark, N.J.; JoAnn Loviglio in Philadelphia; Terry Wallace in Dallas; Sofia Mannos and Jackie Bsharah in Washington, and Rebecca Miller, Pat Milton, David B. Caruso in New York City contributed to this report.


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