Thanksgiving travel up, impact felt in local travel and service industries


JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tens of millions of Americans have hit the roads or taken to the skies to visit family for Thanksgiving. The day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year, according to AAA.

“We’re seeing about a 12-13% rebound over travel numbers last year during the pandemic,” Stephanie Milani, Public Affairs Director for AAA The Auto Club Group, said Wednesday.

Take to the skies

Around 4 million people are expected to fly this Thanksgiving holiday, which is an 80% increase over last year, according to AAA.

“We’re definitely seeing much higher numbers than we were last year for sure,” Kristi Haulsee with the Tri-Cities Airport told News Channel 11 Wednesday. “I believe our numbers should be closer to the 2019 level through the holiday season.”

Haulsee attributes the uptick in flyers to Allegiant adding a flight from St. Pete to the Tri-Cities Airport for the holiday season.

“That’s bringing in additional passengers as well and a lot more leisure travel this time of year than we saw last year or even in 2019,” she said.

Haulsee added that it’s been welcoming to see a rise in emotional reunions in the airport after a year lacking in togetherness.

“Wow, that is almost overwhelming to be able to see people hugging each other again in the airport. Of course, mask mandates are still in place. So you’re getting the eye visual of people, and you can still see smiles and eyes, and being able to watch them hug and greet each other in the airport has just been- it has been a bit overwhelming and wonderful at the same time,” she said.

She reminded travelers that the federal mask mandate is still in place, meaning passengers are still required to wear a mask in terminals and aircraft.

Passengers are also urged to arrive at the airport early to avoid any unnecessary stress.

“Sometimes people do not understand that the ticket counters actually close for a flight 30 minutes prior to departure except for Allegiant, and that’s 45 minutes prior to departure,” Haulsee said. “And you’re supposed to be down in the gate area 30 or 45 minutes before your flight departs, so we just want to make sure that everybody still remembers you’ve got to be at the airport early.”

Going by road

Most folks will opt to drive despite gas prices being the highest reported since 2013, with AAA The Auto Group estimating more than 48 million people will be driving to their destination for the holiday.

For some traveling through the Tri-Cities region, the raised gas prices were actually lower than in their native regions.

“I mean, gas down here is cheaper than up in Pennsylvania,” Mike Labate of Philadelphia told News Channel 11. “I saw a sign not too long ago for $2.95. I almost stopped there just to get the gas there. So down here, it’s actually really nice. I wish I brought up a gas can or two just to fill up down here.”

He said his family did not do much traveling in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he was traveling through the Tri-Cities Wednesday after a pre-Thanksgiving visit with his brother in Nashville.

“Nashville was a lot of fun where you could actually go to different venues and things like that. So it was nice to just see people around to ever having a good time and go into some of the honky-tonks and actually like hearing live music again. That was a lot of fun,” Labate said.

He had some tips for holiday drivers:

“Plan to give yourself some time just so that you’re not in a rush to actually get to your location. You know, that way’s less stressful, I guess.”

Labate and his wife were driving home to Pennsylvania for the holiday and said they were surprised to see fewer cars on the road Wednesday morning than expected.

AAA’s Milani had an answer as to why.

“From noon until about eight this evening is the busiest time to be out on the roads, especially if you’re going through major cities. So if you’re planning your trip, try to avoid going through major cities at rush hour. Or if you can kind of schedule your trip to go through those after eight o’clock tonight you probably won’t have too much trouble,” she said.

She explained that AAA has seen crude oil prices drop about 7% in the last couple of weeks, but she does not expect gas prices to fall anytime soon.

“It’s honestly really hard to say if this release of the strategic petroleum reserves will have the intended effect. So it’s certainly not going to be an immediate drop of a quarter or 50 cents at the pump. The strategic reserves will be released over a number of months. So hopefully that will mean that we see lower prices at the pump but at this point, it is not a guarantee,” Milani said.

Safety first

In an attempt to curb impaired driving and keep all drivers safe, AAA is bringing back its “Tow-to-Go” service which was halted in 2020 due to the pandemic.

“‘Tow-to-Go’ is a service that’s provided by AAA. It is open to members and non-members that will take the driver of the vehicle and the vehicle to a safe spot within 10 miles of where we pick you up,” Milani said.

She explained that the service is not to be abused and should only be used as a last resort.

“We do encourage people to always make plans to get home safely before they go to that party before they go to the relative’s house before they go and enjoy some of the places that they used to hang out in college. We want to make sure that everyone has a plan ahead of time,” she said.

AAA also suggests that with the colder weather creeping up on drivers, that they be prepared.

“Make sure that your winter weather driving kit is all prepare,” Milani said.

She urged that drivers pack a kit containing some water, blanket(s), food for everyone in the vehicle, and jumper cables.

Local economic impact of holiday travel

On the corner of Knob Creek Road and Sunset Drive in Johnson City, Cranberries restaurant staff has welcomed more out-of-towners recently than last year during one of the peaks in the pandemic.

“At Cranberries, we have a pretty decent-sized group that are regulars. So when new people walk in, we pretty much know. And this past couple of weeks we’ve had several people walk in that have never been here before,” said Raven Harmon.

Harmon explained that Cranberries’ staff has noticed more and more people over the last few weeks and days excitedly asking questions about menu items and saying that they had never visited before.

“We’ve sort of had like a big pop come in and they’re shopping and they’re looking around and they’ve found us, so it’s been pretty good for us as far as that goes,” Harmon said. “And it’s always exciting to see new people and know that if they do travel back, they’ll be able to remember the restaurants that they came to. So that’s always good too.”

She said they’ve noticed the number of customers take a full swing in the opposite direction than last year, and they have also noticed a rise in customers who are traveling for the holidays, as compared to 2020.

“I would definitely say that more and more people are traveling and more and more people are coming in. A lot of people are being very respectful about if they need to wear a mask or when they’re allowed to come and things like that, but it’s blown up completely, so it’s great, honestly,” she said.

Harmon explained that it’s the complete opposite to this time last year.

“We were dressing up and having fun, but we were doing mostly curbside and the number of customers that we have is almost tripled,” she said.

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