More Marylanders will take holiday trips this year, and most will drive — even though gas prices are the highest they have ever been entering the holiday season, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.
"Gas prices do not appear to be deterring motorists from hitting the roadways," said Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA, which released its annual holiday travel predictions Tuesday.
Many of the state's nearly 2 million travelers are going without the kids, and without family visits at the top of holiday to-do lists — breaking with traditional patterns in Maryland. More are flying this year as well.
"We expect a lot of eager travelers headed over the river and through the woods," said Jonathan Dean, a spokesman at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. "This year I would expect it to be busy."
Some got an early start Tuesday. Students boarded homebound trains at Penn Station, and holiday travelers mixed at BWI with those rebooking trips after dense fog canceled most of the previous night's flights.
"I'm going home," Yaitza Luna, 32, said with a smile as she waited for a flight to her native Puerto Rico. "It's special because I haven't been home in a year now. Everyone is waiting for me."
The Silver Spring resident was looking forward to two weeks with family, her mother's cooking and lively holiday parties.
"Christmas in Puerto Rico is a lot of fun," said Luna, who had a "Transformers" toy in hand, a Christmas present for her 7-year-old nephew Franvier.
Lt. Col. Jason Quigley, an Annapolis resident who works at the Pentagon for the Air Force, hopped a train with his daughter, Gabrielle Quigley, 13; nieces Baillie Pinder, 6, and Sydney Pinder, 4; and their grandfather, Dennis Quigley, of Florida — all bound for New York City and a Rockettes show.
The three-day trip was Dennis Quigley's idea, a chance to treat his granddaughters before the family gathers in Maryland for the holidays.
"It's just great to get up here with the family during the holidays," he said.
According to AAA's travel forecast, based on economic analysis, traveler surveys and other research by IHS Global Insight, about 1.9 million Marylanders will travel more than 50 miles from home during the "holiday period," which starts Saturday and ends Jan. 1. That's a 1.2 percent increase over last year.
Of those traveling, more than 1.7 million, or about 90 percent, are expected to travel by automobile; nearly 107,000, or 6 percent, by air; and about 77,500, or 4 percent, by trains, buses and other modes of transportation.
Those numbers put automobile travel up 0.9 percent, air travel up 4.1 percent and other travel up 3.9 percent, compared with last year.
Some travelers, including Patterson Park residents Katie Mallory and her fiance, Jeff Evans, are taking off by road, then extending the trip by air, placing them in more than one travel category.
They are driving Friday from Baltimore to the Cleveland area, where Mallory's family lives, and staying through Christmas. Then it's a flight to St. Louis to visit Evans' family. The dog and the car will remain in Cleveland, and the couple will return there before driving back to Baltimore in time for New Year's Eve.
When it comes to holidays, Mallory said, gas prices don't sway decisions much, especially since her mother has been ill.
"We go no matter what, just to spend some time with her," Mallory said. Gas prices only matter when considering trips not tied to holidays, she said. "It's those in-between trips that we may cut back on."
The end-of-year holiday season is the biggest travel time of the year, Averella said, and many people travel regardless of costs. She noted another likely reason that record gas prices won't make a dent in holiday travel: Prices, while higher than last year, have been declining since late September.
In Maryland, the average price of unleaded regular gasoline was $3.27 per gallon Tuesday, compared with $3.21 at the same time last year. But the average was down from $3.33 a week earlier and $3.41 a month earlier, Averella said. Gas peaked at $3.80 per gallon Sept. 13.
"It's probably a welcome holiday gift to travelers, giving them a little bit more money to spend on their trip," Averella said.
The average Marylander traveling for the holidays is expected to have a 765-mile round trip, a 2.4 percent increase over last year, which Averella attributed to the rise in air travel. Air traffic might be up because holiday airfares have dropped about 3 percent compared with last year, AAA said.
Dean said he did not have estimates on flight costs from BWI, but the airport is on track to have its busiest year ever, topping 2011's record for passenger traffic. In December 2011, the airport served 1.72 million passengers, he said.
Scott Barbely and daughter River, 8, of Frederick, were waiting at the airport Tuesday for a trip to the Florida Keys, where he recently purchased real estate. Barbely said the AirTran tickets cost just $56 each way, thanks to a return date of Christmas — which Dean said is generally a slow point amid the holiday hussle.
River, who was wearing a pink elf hat, will miss four days of school, but her teacher gave her work to complete during the trip.
"I already finished all my math homework," she said, "so I don't have to do it when we're down there."
Dean said passenger traffic generally picks up Friday afternoon, when many large school systems, including Baltimore's, begin winter break. Construction at BWI will have "no effect" on travelers' schedules, he said.
"It is a vacation, but it's to visit family," she said. "We're going down to spend some time with them and get some sun."
Russo bought tickets for herself and her husband in August for $1,000, and they will hold Blaine in their laps. She booked 7 a.m. flights in hope of avoiding crowds.
"Especially traveling with a little one for the first time, I wanted to try to get ahead of the crowd," she said. "But it will be interesting to see if everyone else had the same idea."
For others, flying is out of the question.
Travel can be expensive, especially for students, said David Bouchard, 21, who lives downtown and will start at the University of Baltimore in the spring. He decided to travel cheap, booking tickets home to Mississippi on megabus.com.
For less than $100, he'll get picked up in Washington, sleep on the bus overnight and get dropped off the next morning in Memphis, about three hours from his hometown.
"It's cheaper, a lot cheaper," he said.
"Door to door, it's faster and cheaper than a flight," he said.
Regardless of the mode of transportation, there are also differences in the type of travel Marylanders are embarking on this year.
For one, more are traveling without children. Traditionally, most Marylanders who travel during the holidays do so as a family. But this year, nearly half are traveling with just one other adult, while 24 percent are traveling with the family, according to AAA's projections.
"We're not exactly sure why that is," Averella said.
It could be that as the population ages, more older residents are traveling to visit their own grown children, she said. "It could also indicate that parents are taking a much-needed getaway without the kids for the New Year's holiday."
Another difference is the way travelers ranked their reasons for holiday trips. Visiting friends and family traditionally has topped the list in Maryland, but this year, the top two reasons were dining and shopping, according to surveys. Visiting loved ones for the holidays came in third.
Many travelers passing through BWI during the holiday season will be members of the military — like Air Force Maj. Allen Spillers, who arrived Tuesday after spending three days in Baltimore and Washington with his wife, Jayda, and son, A.J., 16.
Spillers, a 48-year-old reservist from Louisiana, was deploying for six to nine months "to the desert;" he declined to give a more specific destination. He'd previously spent a month in training, missing Thanksgiving, and will now miss Christmas as well. But he was thankful for having some time in Baltimore.
"It's something we all have to do as military members, but that doesn't make it easier," he said of his holiday deployment. "The family is left behind to deal with the day-to-day life. It's just tough on them. In many ways, they're the unsung heroes."
BY THE NUMBERS
Travel estimates for period starting Saturday and ending Jan. 1, compared with 2011:
Maryland travelers: 1.9 million, up 1.2 percent
By automobile: more than 1.7 million, up 0.9 percent
By air: nearly 107,000, up 4.1 percent
By train, bus, other: about 77,500, up 3.9 percent
Maryland traveler's average distance: 765 miles, up 2.4 percent
National travelers: 93.3 million, up 1.6 percent
National average spending: $759, up 6 percent
National average lowest round-trip airfare rate: $203, down 3 percent
Average gas prices, per gallon, on Tuesday:
One year ago: $3.21
One week ago: $3.33
One month ago: $3.41
One year ago: $3.23
One week ago: $3.38
One month ago: $3.42