NEW YORK -- The good news for Thanksgiving travelers: the price of gas is at five-year lows. The bad news: a lot more people will be on the road.
During the long holiday weekend, 46.3 million Americans are expected to go 50 miles or more from home, the highest number since 2007, according to travel agency and car lobbying group AAA. That would be a 4.2 percent increase over last year.
While promising for the travel industry, the figure is still 8.5 percent short of the 50.6 million high point reached in 2007, just before the recession.
Like on every other holiday, the overwhelming majority of travelers -- almost 90 percent -- will be driving.
The numbers on the gas station signs will be much kinder this year. AAA says the average retail price for gasoline is $2.85 a gallon, 43 cents cheaper than Thanksgiving Day last year. With the average car getting 18.5 miles a gallon, that means a family driving 300 miles will save $6.97 in fuel this holiday.
Those flying won't be so lucky.
Average airfares are $307.52, up 1.1 from last year, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp., which processes ticket transactions for airlines and travel agencies. That figure doesn't include an average of $51 in additional taxes and fees that passengers pay.
There will be 12.3 million roundtrip passengers, globally, on U.S. airlines during the holiday travel period, up 1.5 percent from last year, according to the industry's lobbying group, Airlines for America. (AAA's forecast shows fewer numbers of fliers because it looks at a five-day period while the airline group looks at the 12 days surrounding Thanksgiving.)
Those travelers staying at hotels will also spend more than last year. The average room rate so far this year is $115.85, up 4.6 percent from the same prior last year, according to travel research firm STR.
When to Travel
If you're among the Thanksgiving travelers driving to your destination, Wednesday's getaway traffic produces the gnarliest snarls from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in most areas, according to analysis of the roads in 21 major U.S. cities by Google (GOOG). The Internet company drew its conclusions by following the locations of smartphones that used its Android operating system and popular mapping service during the week of Thanksgiving in 2012 and last year.
For those driving on Thanksgiving day, the most congestion crops up from noon to 2 p.m., according to Google.
The worst time to drive back home typically is the Saturday after Thanksgiving when Google concluded the average traffic is about 40 percent higher than on the Sunday after the holiday. Pittsburgh was the city among the 21 studied by Google where the traffic was slightly heavier on the Sunday after Thanksgiving than on the Saturday.
Last year's biggest Thanksgiving-week traffic spikes occurred in Philadelphia, Austin, Texas, Washington D.C., and Dallas, according to Google. Denver, Boston, Providence, Rhode Island and Seattle registered the smallest changes in traffic.
Even if you aren't leaving of town, expect long lines when stocking up on food and drink on the day before Thanksgiving. Google says the most searched categories on its mapping service during the past two years have been "ham shop," ''pie shop" and "liquor store."
Once Thanksgiving dinner is done, people turn their attention to the next big holiday. The Friday after Thanksgiving ranks among the busiest shopping days of the year as gift-givers seek out bargains. And one of the top terms entered into Google's maps that day is "Christmas tree farm."
-Liedtke reported from San Francisco.