With demand for air travel on the rebound, airlines have been packing planes… (Tom Tingle, AP )
The economy is on the mend, unemployment is on the decline and fuel prices have dropped for more than two months, setting the stage for the busiest holiday travel period in history.
Nearly 11.7 million Californians are expected to travel at least 50 miles for the holiday season, with 7.3 million of those coming from Southern California, posting what the Automobile Club of Southern California predicts will be records.
The travel numbers represent a 1.8% increase over last year for both the state and the region.Travelacross the U.S. is expected to reach its highest level in six years, according to the Auto Club.
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The effect should be felt at packed hotels and airports.
"This year will be busier than last year," said Nancy Suey Castles, spokeswoman for Los Angeles International Airport, the nation's fifth-busiest airport. "Passengers should expect to see busy terminals and most domestic flights 90% to totally full."
Travelers are not looking forward to battling the crowds.
"I don't like flying out of LAX because of the crowds and the lines," said Kay Hwangbo, an executive assistant at a wealth management firm in Century City who plans to visit family in the Bay Area for the holidays. "But I'm resigned to it."
The travel numbers might have been even higher except that some Americans are putting off long trips because of such travel headaches.
"I hear from many of our clients, mostly older clients, that they are really trying to avoid any long trips simply because of the hassle of getting from Point A to Point B," said Jay Johnson, president of CoastlineTravelAdvisors in Garden Grove.
The scene may not be so hectic at Long Beach Airport, where a new 36,000-square-foot eco-friendly facility opened last week, replacing cramped, temporary trailers.
"We can accommodate everyone," Airport Director Mario Rodriguez said. "You are not going to see lines going all the way out to the roadway."
The Auto Club attributes the higher numbers to improving economic data. The Auto Club points out that spending on travel is expected to rise 6% over 2011, with travelers in the West Coast spending an average of more than $1,000 per household on year-end holiday trips.
The improving numbers offer more good news for airlines and hotels, two industries that have been enjoying steady growth since the recession ended a few years ago.
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With demand for air travel on the rebound, airlines have been packing planes at record levels, filling 83% of seats during the first eight months of 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Meanwhile, airline seats are getting more expensive. Domestic airfares have been on the rise since 2009, jumping 4% in the first half of 2012, the bureau said.
For the upcoming holiday season, the average airline ticket price for domestic flights is $469, a 4% increase over the same period last year, according to ticket sales on Priceline.com, one of the world's largest travel websites.
The hotel industry also expects a merry holiday season.
After a nearly two-year slump that pushed hotel foreclosures up more than 100% in 2010 compared with 2009, the nation's hotels have reported a rise in revenues, occupancy rates and daily rates over the last two years.
For the first week of December, the nation's hotel industry reported a 3.6% increase in occupancy and a 5.4% increase in the average daily rate, compared with the same period last year, according to hotel data from the STR, a Tennessee-based hotel research firm.
In Southern California, 88% of holiday travelers are expected to leave town by car, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California. The road trips should be a bit less expensive because Southern California gasoline prices have been dropping for nine straight weeks.
The state average fell last week to its lowest point of the year — $3.60 a gallon for regular — or $1.07 lower than the $4.671 record price set Oct. 9.
But the price of gas is not likely to play a role in most travel plans.
"For some people, if they have a family trip planned, they are going no matter what," Auto Club spokeswoman Marie Montgomery said.