This Thanksgiving travel season is shaping up to be one for the record books, with tens of millions of Americans packing highways, flooding airports, and eventually, filling their plates with turkey.
Even for Californians – who are dealing with eight months of gas prices topping $5 – the pocket-book-draining effects of inflation are having little impact on decisions to visit family and friends, which for many are propelled by readily available COVID boosters.
“Gas was cheaper in Hawaii than it is here,” said Susan Hodge, a retired schoolteacher who recently returned from a vacation. Hodge filled up her tank on Monday — at a cash price of $4.99 a gallon — and is planning to feed 20 people visiting her Berkeley home. “We’re all just chopping and cooking,” she said.
In total, AAA is projecting 54.6 million people will travel over 50 miles this Thanksgiving, including 7.3 million Californians, by plane or car. “We thought this year might be different because of gas prices,” said John Treanor, a spokesperson for AAA. “But in fact we’re expecting one of the busiest years in recent memory.”
So how can a holiday traveler weather the mind-bending traffic jams, packed airports and pain at the pump? Much of the discomfort comes with holiday travel, but here are some useful tips that can help.
The best tip for drivers is to avoid the inevitable traffic armageddon on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Saturday after Thanksgiving, according to Waze, a mapping application that analyzes Bay Area traffic. Congestion gets progressively worse leading up to the holiday and then takes a nose-dive on Thanksgiving day before shooting back up on Saturday and Sunday.
Treanor of AAA added that early-bird and night owl drivers can save time by avoiding the “heart of the day” from 8 am to 8 pm on peak travel days.
“If you are one of those families that can just get the coffee to go. Load the kids up really early, maybe have them sleep a little bit in the morning, you’re going to save yourself a big headache,” he said.
Avoid highway robbery:
Gas prices have sunk about 60 cents over the past months, but California’s average fuel costs are still $5.25 a gallon. For drivers making the trek from San Jose to Los Angeles, the roundtrip will cost $142 — about 12% more than last year.
One important tip, say gas price experts, is to shop around before your car hits empty. In the Bay Area, the cheapest gas stations are often small independently-owned locations, along with Costco if you have a membership.
“Don’t just go to the first station that you see,” said Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy, a company that crowdsources gas price data. DeHaan’s Gasbuddy app, along with Google search, provides a good barometer of nearby gas prices. “Know what prices are around you – it takes me 20 seconds,” he said.
Two stations on the I-5 corridor between Los Angeles and the Bay Area can help drivers avoid highway robbery on the long-distance journey. Love’s Travel Stop in Lost Hills is selling gas for $4.89 a gallon, as of Monday morning, along with $5.09 a gallon at the ARCO station in Buttonwillow — both north of the Grapevine.
Some of the cheapest gas stations in the East Bay are Berkeley’s Smog & Gas and Mash Gas & Food in Orinda. San Jose has long had the Bay Area’s best gas price deals with three relatively inexpensive gas stations clustered on the east side. A long-standing price war between two stations at the corner of McKee Road and North 33rd Street helps keep prices down.
There is one more tip from DeHaan for drivers looking to save a few extra pennies: wait. Gas prices are expected to continue dropping through Thanksgiving and into December. “Come Wednesday the majority of stations are going to be cheaper than where they are today,” said DeHaan. “We should continue to see the pace of decline accelerating.”
The Bay Area’s three major airports in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland are expecting long lines and a flood of passengers this week as air travel bounces back to near pre-pandemic levels.
At Mineta San Jose International Airport, passenger traffic is now at its highest level since 2019 with over 438,000 passengers expect to pass through their doors in the 12 days between Friday, Nov. 18 and Tuesday, Nov. 29. Airport staff recommend arriving 2 hours early for domestic flights and checking the real-time parking availability using their website flysanjose.com/parking.
“With a little advance planning, holiday travel through Mineta San José International should be easy as pie,” John Aitken, the airport’s aviation director, said in a statement.
San Francisco International is expecting 5 million travelers between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day – about 85% of the 2019 travel levels, while Oakland’s airport will reach 90% of pre-pandemic levels.
Along with packed airports, travelers are also dealing with the rising costs of airline tickets, which unlike gas prices aren’t getting any cheaper before the holidays.
“It’s pretty expensive,” said Jan Purat, a Berkeley musician, who booked a flight for early Thursday morning to see his family in Phoenix. “I had to choose the worst time because that’s what I could afford.”
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