12/21/2011 - Holiday travel takes off in Asheville, beyond
by Sabian Warren - Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE -- For Andrea Clauset, driving here from her home in Winston-Salem and then to Nashville, Tenn., to visit relatives over the holidays will pinch the pocketbook because of high gas prices.
But it could be worse.
Gasoline prices have steadily fallen since a peak in May, according to AAA Carolinas, allowing drivers a little extra cash for gifts.
"The prices have gone down a little lately, which is nice," said Clauset, who is in Asheville with her husband, Caleb, and their two children. "We're thankful for that."
The upcoming trip to Nashville, obviously, would have been faster by air, but a road trip made more sense, Clauset said.
"It's more expensive to fly for the four of us," she said. "Plus, we have our presents with us."
The average price of a gallon of unleaded gas in the state is $3.23, down 64 cents from the May peak, according to AAA.
Clauset is fairly typical of North Carolina residents as holiday travel kicks into high gear this week. Of the estimated 2.6 people in the state who will travel more than 50 miles between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, the majority will drive, with only about 6 percent traveling by air, according to AAA.
To make road travel easier, the N.C. Department of Transportation is suspending construction projects on state roads starting at 4 p.m. Friday and extending through 9 a.m. Jan. 3, with two exceptions -- U.S. 17 Business in Jacksonville and U.S. 17 in Windsor.
Air travel is expected to be down a little this holiday, possibly related to higher costs. Airfares are up 21 percent over last year, triggered by higher jet fuel costs and reduced capacity as airlines try to increase profits, according to AAA.
But that doesn't mean Asheville Regional Airport won't be busy. The airport will see up to 2,000 passengers coming and going daily, about the same number as last Christmas, airport marketing director Tina Kinsey said.
She reminds air travelers to arrive early for flights -- an hour and a half to two hours before a scheduled departure.
"During busier holiday travel times, it's important to arrive with enough time to be safe," Kinsey said. "Typically, at Asheville Regional Airport you zip through security pretty quickly, but sometimes the lines are long."
In addition to more crowded terminals, many air travelers on holidays aren't used to flying.
"A lot of times, people flying this time of year are not frequent fliers," Kinsey said. "We have some great customer service here, so people do get the help they need."
Kinsey said wrapped gifts should not be brought as carry-on luggage because security personnel likely would unwrap them.
The wild card for any winter holiday travel is the weather, of course. While this Christmas shouldn't be anything like last year, when heavy snow wreaked havoc at airports and on roadways across the country, some regions could get some snow, most notably the Midwest. The Northeast is less certain, with rain in the forecast that could turn to snow.
Even Asheville might see some snow Sunday night, though accumulating snow is unlikely, National Weather Service meteorologist James Oh said. While most of this week will be mild and rainy, a cold front arriving Sunday could lead to freezing precipitation.
"It should be rain all day, but the rain could switch to snow Sunday night," Oh said. "We're not expecting accumulation. The ground will be really moist. But there's still a lot of uncertainty for that time frame. We're looking at staying pretty wet and unsettled the entire week."