Thanksgiving travel forecast: Down but still heavy
Outlook • UDOT halts roadwork to help flow; storms in East could hamper air travel. Transit • UTA offers reduced train and bus service on Black Friday.
Published: November 26, 2013 09:49AM
Updated: November 26, 2013 09:49AM
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Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune A Jet plane comes in for a landing at the Salt Lake International airport, Monday, November 25, 2013.

Some of the year’s biggest travel days are coming this Thanksgiving holiday week — although a sluggish economy is projected to push numbers down slightly.

To help smooth highway traffic that is still projected to be heavy, all major road construction in Utah will be halted temporarily.

The AAA travel services company projects 43.4 million people nationally plan to travel 50 miles or more during the extended Thanksgiving weekend, down 1.5 percent from last year. It estimates 3.2 million Mountain West residents will make such trips, down 0.8 percent.

“Travelers will set aside thoughts of fiscal uncertainty to gather and feast with people who matter most in their lives,” said AAA Utah spokeswoman Rolayne Fairclough. “While travel projections are lower than Thanksgiving in 2012, this year’s travel forecast is still well above the 2008-09 level when the recession caused a drop in travel of more than 25 percent.”

AAA projects a typical Mountain West family of four will spend $681 over the holiday weekend. Those who travel by car are expected to drive an average of 762 miles.

Meanwhile, winter storms forecast for the East could cause ripple-effect airline delays nationally. And there’s a transit snag too: Utah Transit Authority bus and rail service will halt on Thanksgiving and be at higher compared with the previous year but still reduced levels on the big Black Friday shopping day.

Roads • Utah highway traffic is expected to be heaviest on Wednesday and Sunday, but the Utah Department of Transportation said it is trying to help by temporarily halting all construction projects during the long weekend.

“We’ve wrapped up most major construction for the year,” said UDOT spokesman John Gleason. “For any construction that’s still going on, we’ll take a break. We don’t want to add to any congestion.”

He added some tips — and warnings — for highway travel.

“If you have any flexibility at all, you may do yourself a favor by shifting your travel times to avoid peak travel hours on Wednesday and Sunday, between the hours of 3 and 7 p.m.,” he said. “It may make sense to leave a day earlier and come back a day later.”

He added those days “are among the heaviest travel days of the year” and the deadliest, too. Last year, Thanksgiving was the deadliest holiday weekend on Utah roads, with four killed. November had the highest monthly toll, with 23 killed. This month, 19 have died so far on Utah roads.

Gleason encourages people to wear seat belts and avoid drowsy driving. “If you are taking a big trip, we ask that you get a good night’s sleep the night before.

Also, schedule some stops. You are more likely to be involved in an accident if you are driving two or more hours straight without a break.”

UDOT updates traffic conditions at udottraffic.utah.gov and (toll-free) 866-511-UTAH.

Air • Barbara Gann, spokeswoman for Salt Lake City International Airport, said the nation’s airway also are expected to be most crowded on Wednesday and Sunday, which are among the year’s busiest days.

She noted Delta Air Lines (with a hub in Salt Lake City) added extra Sunday flights to handle anticipated holiday crowds.

“The weather looks a little tricky,” she said, with winter storms predicted in the East that could cause delays everywhere. Gann suggested travelers watch www.fly.faa.gov or flightaware.com “to get a feel of what is happening and if they need to work with their airline for changes” because of cancellations and delays.

Gann also offered some tips.

“We encourage people to be in the terminal 90 minutes before domestic flights, and two hours for international flights.”

To speed moving through the terminal, she advised travelers to print boarding passes at home.

For going through security, Gann suggested travelers wear slip-on shoes, remove their coats and take computers and electronics out of carrying cases before reaching checkpoints.

Information about what is allowed through security is available at www.tsa.gov.

Gann also encouraged use of the airport’s park-and-wait lot to reduce congestion at the terminal. People can wait there — watching flight arrival information posted on electronic signs — and then pick up people when they are at the curb.

Transit • UTA will not offer any regular bus, TRAX or FrontRunner service on Thanksgiving. Ski bus service will continue, as will limited Park City service.

On “Black Friday,” UTA offers Sunday-schedule bus service, and Saturday-schedule TRAX and FrontRunner Service. Regular ski-bus service is available. Specific schedules are available at rideuta.com.

Last year, so many riders complained about cuts to Black Friday service — amid news stories about high UTA executive salaries, travel and bonuses ­— that the agency posted an explanation on its website, saying cuts were to save money with the opening of several new rail lines and a slow economic recovery.

This year, UTA spokesman Remi Barron said, “Black Friday is typically a low ridership day” with “few, if any, school trips [and] significantly fewer work trips.

Bus service does not typically attract special event riders, such as the Temple Square lighting,” so UTA offers reduced service.

Bus service has increased this year, Barron noted, “and we have additional bus service in the budget for next year. We continue to monitor holiday ridership as we determine where additional service would be most effective.”

ldavidson@sltrib.com