CHICAGO -- Millions of Americans got an early jump on their Thanksgiving travel Wednesday, with many opting to drive or take trains and buses instead of shelling out more money for flights amid a sour economy still hitting household budgets hard.
At a Greyhound station in Louisville, Ky., 18-year-old Cathy Smith waited patiently to catch a bus to Tennessee. Smith has flown home in the past, but her grandparents - who paid for her bus ticket - ruled that out this year.
It was the price of the ticket, she said.
Many Americans are forgoing air travel for Thanksgiving and opting for cheaper alternatives because of economic pressures. Others are staying home completely - partly to avoid traffic and airport lines, partly to save a buck.
Thanksgiving travel plummeted 25 percent between 2007 and 2008, and many of those habits seem to be sticking this year. The number of people traveling is likely to inch up only by about 1.4 percent, according to an AAA prediction based on a survey of 1,300 households.
About 38 million domestic travelers are expected to go somewhere this holiday - a far cry from the roughly 58 million who made holiday journeys in 2005 when the economy was better.
Traveling for Thanksgiving at any cost was too much for Julie Bennink, 26, who works in public relations in Chicago. Unexpected bills meant she couldn't afford paying what would have been at least $400 for a rental car and gas to drive the three hours to Grand Rapids, Mich., for dinner with her family.
My mom was not really thrilled with me when I told her, said Bennink, whose plan B was to take a 15-minute city bus ride to a friend's house.
Most people have calculated that travel by car often makes the most financial sense, said Alan Pisarski, a leading transportation analyst. About 33 million people are expected to travel by car this Thanksgiving, according to AAA.
John and Janet Lawson of Elizabethtown, Ky., opted to drive 350 miles to Dearborn Heights, Mich., to make dinner for one of her sisters rather than spend the holiday with her other siblings in Minnesota.
It affected us as far as the distance we would travel, Janet Lawson said at a service plaza along Interstate 75 in southwest Ohio. We didn't want to do any flying.
The Lawsons left home at 4 a.m., hoping to beat traffic. Their SUV was loaded with turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and pies. If we get stranded on the side of the road, we are not going to starve, John Lawson said.
Pam Walker and her family of five made the more than seven-hour drive from Muskegon, Mich., to Nashville to visit her son. It's cheaper and it's also a ride we're familiar with, said Walker, who was meeting her son at a restaurant for breakfast.
Those on the road also were watching their wallets.
Instead of stopping at restaurants, we prepared and packed food ahead of time, so we could save money, said Shelid Freeman, who stopped at a service plaza for a bathroom and coffee break on Interstate 64 in New Kent County, Va., while driving from Columbus, Ohio, to Virginia Beach.
Train ridership also was predicted to get a holiday boost. Amtrak said it expected Wednesday to be its busiest travel day of the year, with ridership as high as 125,000 passengers. On a typical Wednesday, the railroad carries approximately 74,000 passengers.
At New York City's Penn Station, sisters Emily and Katie Jacobs ate breakfast and drank coffee at they waited for their train to Atlantic City, N.J.
Emily Jacobs, 26, said they decided on Amtrak after considering traffic on the roads, getting out of the city, and then the New Jersey Turnpike ... might as well bypass all that.
The cost of flying was another deterrent, Emily Jacobs said, since ticket prices for planes were insane already and the surcharges for holiday airfare were even more discouraging.
Airlines had been depending on holiday travelers more than usual because travel has been so weak the rest of the year, said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Hunter Keay. The AAA predicts there will be a 6.7 percent decrease in air travelers this holiday compared with last year.
That doesn't mean fewer sardine-packed planes. Carriers have cut the number of aircraft in service, ensuring full planes. And with extra fees to check baggage on most carriers, many travelers are likely to bring as much as they can on board. So add battles for overhead compartment space to the list of potential headaches.
At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Manu Maile was checking to make sure passengers followed American Airlines' limits for carry-on luggage - one bag and one personal item. Maile, who works for Prospect Airport Services, said more people were trying to sneak an extra bag on board this year.
She said crowds were smaller and less frenzied than last Thanksgiving.
Last year we had people fighting at the checkpoint, Maile said. They were screaming at the (Transportation Security Administration.) They were getting mad over waiting in line.
Air travelers were finding short lines and little aggravation Wednesday morning. According to the Federal Aviation Administration's Web site, there were delays at Philadelphia International Airport and two of New York City's major airports, LaGuardia and Newark International. Few other problems were reported elsewhere.
The world's busiest airport, Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, was crowded but calm. The airport was bracing for a rush of 1.7 million holiday travelers - in line with the holiday period last year, general manager Ben DeCosta said.
Sitting by security check-in, 24-year-old advertising student Laura Berg said she had stayed in Atlanta for Easter and decided it was worth it to brave higher ticket prices so she could see her family in San Antonio for Thanksgiving.
Others found a way to fly while still cutting costs.
Mariangela Ruiz paid $750 for a roundtrip ticket from Lima, Peru, to Miami International Airport, where a friend was to pick her up and drive two hours to Naples, Fla., so she could spend the holiday with family.
Ruiz said she didn't get a more direct flight because the tickets were too expensive. I'd rather pay someone to pick me up and pay their gas than have to pay $200 more, Ruiz said.
Her employer will reimburse her for half of the cost of her flight because she'll also be working during her trip. Still, Ruiz said the upcoming holiday season and the sour economy gave her pause about her decision to travel.
I really had to think about it, because with the holidays coming and Christmas, I really wasn't going to come, she said.