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AAA: Nearly 2.2 million holiday travelers expected

Nearly 2.2 million Marylanders are expected to travel this holiday season — which would represent a new record, despite being the smallest annual growth rate since 2011, according to a new report from AAA Mid-Atlantic.

The report, released Tuesday, attributes the numbers to low gas prices and an improving economy, as well as back-to-back three-day weekends, with Christmas and New Year's Day falling on Fridays.

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But an informal survey of a dozen people at The Shops at Kenilworth in Towson shows it might be more family and tradition — and not the economy — that's driving their trip-planning. Not that anyone is complaining about the gas prices.

"That certainly helps," said Lois Lewis, 67, of Baltimore County, who plans to drive twice to the Eastern Shore to see her mother and sister, as well as down to National Harbor for her wedding anniversary this month. "We pay attention to that."

More than 100 million Americans are expected to travel 50 miles or more from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3, up 1.4 percent from last year according to the AAA estimates, put together by consulting firm IHS Global Insight based on economic data and surveys.

The firm is predicting a seventh consecutive year of increases for Maryland and the nation.

But while the number of Maryland travelers surged more than 5 percent last year, this year's growth is expected to be far more modest — less than 1 percent.

"Some consumers continue to remain cautious about their finances as they head into the holiday season," said Ragina Cooper Averella, manager of public and government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Averella said she's not sure how to explain Maryland's lag behind the national projection, a gap that has appeared for nearly every holiday this year.

The travel window is one day shorter than last year, she said; and sample sizes for the states are always smaller than the nation, but the state economy has been doing better.

"I don't have a great answer," she said. "It's always a little bit off."

Mindy Kammer, 36, of Baltimore County said her family has stopped making long holiday trips since her in-laws relocated to Maryland from Chicago about seven years ago. Even with four children, the economy isn't the main factor, she said.

"I feel like if we want to go somewhere bad enough, we'll make it happen," she said.

And Marcy Ray, 42, of Baltimore County said her family never travels.

"Every Thanksgiving, I tell my husband, 'We're so lucky,'" said Ray, who will be hosting 12 on Christmas this year. "All our family is local."

The AAA survey found that about 91 percent of Maryland travelers — 1,964,300 people — are expected to drive to their destination, up 0.9 percent.

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Air travel for state residents is expected to remain flat at 114,400 people, or about 5.3 percent of all travelers.

Travel by other modes — such as bus, train and boat — is expected to increase 1.3 percent in Maryland to 80,200, a larger increase driven by cruise ship numbers, Averella said.

In previous years, Lewis said, she and her husband have ventured farther afield. But the holidays are different.

"As we get older, even as we take trips, for the special holidays we want to be with family," she said.

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is expected to be the 22nd-busiest airport in the country this season, according to Airlines for America, an industry trade group, which last week issued its own estimates for holiday travel. (The group uses different methodology from the AAA estimates, such as a travel period that starts Dec. 18 and includes international and business trips.)

Airlines for America predicts a more than 3 percent increase in passenger volume nationwide — up about 73,000 passengers each day, thanks in part to declining airfares.

"We expect to see a busy holiday season," said airport spokesman Jonathan Dean.

Joy Brillante, 71, of Bowie and her husband will start loading the car this weekend for an 850-mile drive to Tennessee. Her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren will follow shortly after by plane.

Their trips also are dictated by family considerations — in this case, her 93-year-old mother.

"I have to go," Brillante said. "I can't leave her alone."

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