Fewer South Carolinians hitting the road during holidays

Americans were already dealing with surging gas prices and fewer flight options this holiday. And then a devastating winter storm crippled travel across the country.

Not surprisingly, motorist club AAA predicts that nearly 5 percent fewer South Carolinians will venture from home this holiday. About 4 percent fewer people will drive, and nearly 6 percent fewer people will fly between today and Jan. 3, AAA estimates.

Those projections follow a modest jump in Thanksgiving travel this year, according to AAA Carolinas spokesman Tom Crosby. He attributed that increase to better weather in November and to cash-strapped travelers' choosing one holiday or the other this year.

Airlines rolled out smaller planes and extra fees to cut back on their own expenditures. And the October Air Travel Consumer Report found that, nationally, almost one-quarter of flights have arrived late this year.

"What we're seeing is air travel altogether is on the decline, and I think that's part of the airlines' strategy of cutting back on bigger planes and trying to fill all the seats," Crosby said. "That gets very complicated when you're also dealing with bad weather."

AAA's study finds that the state's record-high unemployment rate also factors into lighter travel.

To make matters worse, local gasoline costs almost a dollar more on average this Christmas compared with last.

In the Midlands, the average price of gasoline was $2.41 on Tuesday compared with $1.53 a year ago, according to AAA Carolinas.

Kathy Torino, manager at Travel Leaders in North Charleston, said this year brought the usual holiday customers - college students and others who make their trips year after year. But she finds her company booking local customers more for the new year and beyond these days.

"We are seeing people plan ahead - and I mean well ahead, 14 months - because if you have a family, you have limited income," Torino said.

Holiday travelers should catch a break, though, if they need a place to stay. AAA estimates accommodations rates across the country will drop as much as 10 percent compared with last year.

When it comes to in-bound travelers, now might be too soon to tell how the local hospitality industry will fare this Christmas.

Dan Blumenstock, president of the Greater Charleston Hotel and Motel Association, sees visitors booking just days in advance, a trend that started this summer.

"This might sound crazy, but our booking window has continued to decline," he said Monday. "I don't know that we can see our holiday travel yet." Blumenstock said his hotels typically reflect only 40 percent or 50 percent occupancy for Christmas but that New Year's weekend, especially downtown, usually brings in business. "We don't count on Christmas Day travel," he said.

"People are staying with family. It's that week after when people are taking the time off and using vacation time."

AAA predicts the average South Carolina resident who does journey out this Christmas will travel 870 miles round-trip and spend $934, or nearly $100 below the national average.