Changing family demographics shift holiday travel trends

Connie Rhodes had an extra incentive to head to North Carolina from Dundalk this holiday season.

Three of her grandchildren got married this year, and for their first Christmas with their spouses, "they wanted Grandma there," the 64-year-old said Wednesday as she waited for a train at Penn Station in Baltimore.

"It made me feel good," she said, a neat, snowman-embroidered bag at her feet.

From now until New Year's Day, nearly 2 million Marylanders are expected to hit the road, catch flights and settle into train cars en route to holiday destinations, about the same number as made trips last year, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. But who is traveling and where they are headed are changing, officials say, along with America's evolving demographics.

More than ever, holiday travelers in Maryland and across the country are like Rhodes: baby boomers traveling alone or with one other adult, taking it upon themselves to travel for the holidays so their children and grandchildren don't have to.

They are also college students and young professionals without children, single divorced people, and men and women in perfectly happy — but long-distance — relationships, family and travel researchers say.

According to Ragina Averella, a AAA spokeswoman, there is a trend of "more active older adults and more single younger adults" traveling and "middle-aged people with kids having the desire to stay home."

Historically, people traveling as a family with children made up the largest share of the traveling population. But in recent years, adults traveling without children have overtaken them.

This year, 49 percent of holiday travelers surveyed in Maryland said they would be traveling alone or with one other adult, while 25 percent said they would be traveling with family and children. In 2011, 33 percent traveled alone or with other adults and 36 percent with families.

According to Bethany Willis Hepp, a family studies and community development lecturer at Towson University, "that's kind of logical if you look at some of the demographic trends over the last couple of decades" in the United States.

For the past half-century, the average size of the American household has been shrinking, and more adults are living alone, away from family. In 1950, U.S. Census data showed 9 percent of adults lived alone, compared to 27 percent in 2010, Willis Hepp said.

Resettled blended families are more common than ever, and parents are traveling to be with children in different cities, she said.

Since the recession, which drove many young professionals to follow jobs, more are in long-distance relationships as well, and more adults are traveling during the holidays simply to be with their partners and spouses.

In addition, young people are putting off marriage today, and having children later, Willis Hepp said. And then there's the good health of baby boomers and seniors.

"Where families used to travel to get to Grandma and Grandpa, Grandma and Grandpa now are increasingly more mobile," Willis Hepp said. "They are now in their 60s and are perfectly capable of jumping in a car and going to their kids."

About 1.9 million Marylanders will travel 50 miles or more to reach family members, go out to dinner and shop between this weekend and New Year's morning, according to AAA statistics released Thursday.

On average, they will travel 965 miles round-trip, a big bump from last year's average of 765 miles, AAA predicts. The vast majority, or 91 percent, will travel by automobile — gas prices have been dropping in recent weeks — while 5 percent will go by airplane and 4 percent by rail.

Many, old and young, are going it alone.

Esther Duranske, 21, a senior at Towson University, said Wednesday that she plans to hit the road by herself this weekend, back home to Charles County. "I'm not worried," she said of traffic during the holidays. "I'll just jam in the car."

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on Wednesday night, Sue Musolf, 44, and her daughters Amanda, 14, and Shannon, 12, all of Phoenix in Baltimore County, got big hugs from Musolf's mother, Carol Hanbey, 78, who'd just arrived from Orlando.

While Hanbey enjoyed having Christmas at her house years ago, the plan was always that she would travel to her children's houses — her son, Michael Doherty, and his wife, Theresa, live in Columbia — once grandchildren came along, she said.

"With everything today, it's easier to fly with one or two [people] than three, four or five," Hanbey said. "It's wonderful having adult children, because they take care of seeing that I get here."

"I only hope to have her life at her age," said Musolf. "She's as busy, if not busier, than we are."

Pamela Williams, 58, of Bowie, also was at the airport, greeting her mother, Janet Cofran, 80, who'd just arrived on a flight from Cape Cod. Cofran was excited to see her newest great-granddaughter — Williams' granddaughter — during her visit, she said.

"I'm very excited, because we've been Skyping back and forth, so I've been watching her growing up," Cofran said.

Many of the flights into BWI on Wednesday were filled with grandparents and college students flying solo or in pairs — eager to start their holidays with loved ones. The scene wasn't much different at Penn Station.

Some had different reasons for traveling. Barbara Austin, of Northeast Baltimore, sat waiting on Wednesday for her train south. Destination: Miami.

Austin said she spends all year working a job and being a mother and grandmother in Baltimore, which she loves. But every few years, she feels "the need to get away," she said.

"My grandson dropped me off, and I told him, 'I've got to go to South Beach,'" she said with a big grin.

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