Holiday travelers expected to break records

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SALT LAKE CITY — This year may be among the busiest holiday travel seasons in history.

The Mountain West region is forecast to see the highest number of travelers ever for the end-of-the-year holiday season, according to a recent survey. AAA Utah predicts that more than 7.4 million area residents will travel during the final days of the year, representing an overall increase of 3.2 percent from the same time in 2013.

“Consumer optimism, an increase of disposable income and lower gas prices are enabling many families to plan a holiday getaway,” said AAA Utah spokeswoman Rolayne Fairclough. “This year the holidays land on a Thursday, creating a holiday travel season that is one day longer than a year ago and the longest since 2008.”

The extra day creates more flexibility for individuals and families as they schedule travel plans between Christmas and New Year’s, Fairclough said. The auto club estimates that about 6.6 million Mountain West residents will choose to drive to their holiday destinations during the Christmas to New Year’s period — up 3.4 percent over last year.

Among the main factors for the rise in vehicle travel is falling prices as the fuel pump. The AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report showed that the current price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Utah is around $2.61, down significantly from last year’s average price of about $2.97 at this time in 2013. The current national average price registered at $2.48 a gallon compared with $3.22 a year ago.

(Drivers) have seen about a 32 percent drop in price since in the peak of April and May of this year. When travel costs go down, you see significantly more people travelling.

–Randy Shumway, economic adviser for Zions Bank

According to one local economist, the current gas prices are the lowest they have been in five years.

“(Drivers) have seen about a 32 percent drop in price since in the peak of April and May of this year,” said Randy Shumway, economic adviser for Zions Bank. “When travel costs go down, you see significantly more people travelling.”

Holiday travel has increased nationwide in each of the past six years due to many factors, Shumway said, including the rising population and improving economy.

Gas prices are at their lowest point since 2009, and they're expected to remain comparatively low throughout next year, he said.

“Most forecasts are projecting gasoline prices to be at their lowest point through all of 2015 since 2009,” Shumway said.

The plummeting price of crude oil is the major factor, he added.

The current price of Brent crude oil registered at just under $55 per barrel — down from $105 a barrel at the same time last year, Shumway explained.

“Because of fracking technology and increased access to oil reserves, the United States in 2014 is expected to produce enough energy to satisfy roughly 84 percent of U.S. demand,” he said.

Increased domestic energy production, falling oil demand from Europe and China, combined with rising Middle East petroleum production have pushed crude oil prices — and therefore gasoline prices — way down, Shumway said.

OPEC is expected maintain is current production levels throughout much of next year in an effort to retain its global market share, he noted, meaning prices at the gas pump will likely remain relatively low.

Meanwhile, AAA Utah stated that air travel is expected to experience a slight boost in passengers, with more than 530,000 Mountain West residents expected to fly over the holidays — 0.5 percent higher than in 2013.

Air travellers can expect to pay an average price of $186 per round trip ticket for the top U.S. air routes during the holiday season, Fairclough said, representing a decrease of 7 percent from last year. She noted that the decline was influenced by the availability of discounted rates from low-cost carriers in several top markets.

More than 254,000 area residents are expected to travel by other modes, including rail or by boat, Fairclough said. That represents an increase of 4.1 percent compared with last year, she added.

Nationwide, AAA estimated that more than 98 million people will travel at least 50 miles during the holiday period — a 4 percent hike over last year.

For those not vacationing at a friend’s or relative’s house, travellers should expect to pay a little more for a hotel room.

The survey showed that the cost of lodging at AAA Three Diamond-rated properties is expected to climb 4 percent to an average rate of $143 per night. For a more economical choice, AAA Two Diamond lodgings are expected to cost an average of $108 per night — 5 percent above rates from 2013.

In addition, weekend vehicle rental rates will cost about $63 per day on average compared with $55 last year.

Contributing: Devon Dolan

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