Economy makes for tougher Thanksgiving journeys

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Photo -   Travelers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport wait for ground transportation upon their arrival Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. Thanksgiving travelers encountered cancellations and delays at Chicago's airports on Wednesday as extremely dense fog settled over the region. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Travelers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport wait for ground transportation upon their arrival Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. Thanksgiving travelers encountered cancellations and delays at Chicago's airports on Wednesday as extremely dense fog settled over the region. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Millions of Americans embarking on the nation's annual Thanksgiving migration navigated around the sluggish economy Wednesday, many of them having had to sacrifice summer vacations, scour websites for deals or rely on relatives to chip in for airfare.

Accepting there is no quick end to the road out of recession, many said they've had to become savvier or at least hardier travelers — resilient enough to brave a day-long drive with the kids or a long haul by bus. There were other familiar obstacles, like heavy fog shrouding the air hub of Chicago, which sent delays and cancelations rippling around the nation. There was also a labor march outside an entrance to Los Angeles International Airport, but it caused no disruptions.

"Whatever happens happens," said Robert Johnson, a 63-year-old small business owner waylaid on his journey from Fargo, N.D., to Houston by the fog in Chicago, where he was to connect. "You can't do anything about it. It's not in my control. So you try to stay calm and let it go by and it will get better."

He might have been referring to the whims of nature, but his comments neatly summed up the mindset of many travelers buffeted by the economy.

It's not just family finances that are tighter. Airlines struggling to save on jet fuel and other expenses have cut the number of flights, leading to a jump in airfares. Those hitting the roads face high gas prices and rising tolls.

Other than the Midwest fog, few significant travel problems rose up Wednesday, though firefighters had to put out a small fire in the engine of a JetBlue flight that landed at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. No one was hurt.

On the East Coast, the upheaval caused by Superstorm Sandy meant added costs for some travelers.

The storm forced Chris McLaughlin, a 22-year-old senior at Boston College from West Chester, Penn., to reschedule a medical school interview in Philadelphia, which means he has to make an extra trip home next month. He ended up flying home for Thanksgiving on Wednesday, and all told, the change of plans will set him back about $200, he said.

"It killed me," he said of the financial impact of the storm, which also left his parents without power for eight days. "I think we were feeling we could loosen up a little bit (financially), but with Sandy and everything that happened, (people) feel like they can't."

If the nation's travel patterns are any kind of barometer for the state of the economy, the travel forecast for Thanksgiving week suggested a slight upward nudge as people and businesses recover slowly from the 2007-09 recession in which Americans lost nearly a quarter of their wealth.

About 43.6 million Americans were expected to journey 50 miles or more between Wednesday and Sunday, just a 0.7 percent increase from last year, according to AAA's yearly Thanksgiving travel analysis. After a couple of years of healthy post-recession growth, this year's numbers suggest it will take a stronger economy to lift travel demand significantly, the travel organization said.

More people are driving, fewer are flying and the average distance traveled was expected to be nearly 17 percent — or about 120 miles — shorter than a year ago, it said.

As car ownership declines among younger Americans, many of those hitting the road were jumping onto buses. Intercity bus service has risen in recent years with curbside companies like Megabus.

At a Greyhound terminal in downtown Denver, Eileen Lindbuchler, a 32-year-old massage therapist was hauling her bulky massage table through the line to board a bus. She uses her iPhone to coordinate bus schedules and connecting routes, and believes ditching her car this year for the 65-mile journey to visit family in Colorado Springs will save her money.

"I think it's going to be a lot cheaper," she said. "I want to see how it works. I've always had to travel by car."

Aided by smartphone apps, social media and other technology, consumers are getting better at sniffing out deals and realize they need to be flexible with dates and even with which airports they chose when booking, said Courtney Scott, a senior editor at Travelocity.

"I think people are really becoming smarter, more creative travelers and shoppers," Scott said.

Sometimes, though, no amount of creativity with an airline booking can avoid breaking the bank for those with large families.

So, Linne Katz and her five children had to hit the road, leaving their home in Haledon, N.J., at 1 a.m. Wednesday in hopes of getting to her father's home in Tennessee while the sun was still up. But driving has downsides, she said.

"My oldest keeps having to go the bathroom. ... I think he's getting carsick," Katz said, as she stopped to take pictures of her children under the "Virginia Welcomes You" sign at an I-66 rest stop near the Manassas National Battlefield.

For all the options out there, some couldn't make the journey at all.

Lisa Appleton, 42, of Sandy Springs, Ga., said she lost her job as an accounting manager during the holidays last year and had to forgo her usual Thanksgiving road trip to visit family in northeast Ohio this year because she couldn't afford it on the lower salary of her new job with an ice skating rink.

"This is the first year that I have not gone in like five years," she said. "It seems weird to me."

So she and her 23-year-old son were planning to spend the holiday at home, eating and watching football. After checking airline prices, she decided they'll also stay in Georgia for Christmas.

"It breaks my heart, but it's something you've got to do," she said. "If you don't have the money, you just — you can't do it."

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Associated Press writers Dave Kolpack in Fargo, N.D.; Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia, P. Solomon Banda in Denver, Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio; and Matthew Barakat in Chantilly, Va., contributed to this report.

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