A record number of Californians are expected to pack freeways and airports this holiday season, a joyful sign for the economy but a lump of coal for anyone hoping for a smooth trip out to see family and friends.
AAA said Monday in its annual Christmas and New Year's travel forecast that 11.7 million Californians -- nearly one-third of the state -- will travel at least 50 miles in the next two weeks. Friday may be the busiest day at Bay Area airports, officials said.
The travel surge -- boosted by the improving economy -- represents an increase of less than 2 percent over the previous record of 11.5 million, set in 2006 and matched in 2011, and marks the fourth straight year of holiday travel growth since the Great Recession.
Even Kathy Ligon is traveling this Christmas -- a personal first.
The Los Gatos resident has stayed home for the holidays her entire life, but after her parents died and her 19-year-old daughter moved to Austin, Texas, earlier this year, she's decided to fly out and see her this weekend.
"Financially it's difficult. It's harder to find flights that are convenient," said Ligon, 52, who works at Samsung Semiconductor. But seeing her daughter is a priority. "Only having one child, it's hard that she's gone and it's even harder to have holidays without your family."
Travel is up slightly nationwide compared with last year, though the U.S. totals are forecast to lag just behind the pre-recession peak. Cynthia Harris, a spokeswoman for AAA Northern California, said Californians are saving money on gas by buying more fuel-efficient vehicles and staying closer to home with overnight jaunts or even day trips. Families are also prioritizing trips -- taking perhaps one or two vacations during the most important holidays instead of multiple journeys throughout the year. The economy's slow-but-steady rise has also helped.
While gas prices in the Bay Area and around the state have dropped more than $1 per gallon from the all-time high reached in October, holiday travelers tend to make their plans in advance and have come to expect big changes at the pump.
"That's just icing on the cake, a welcome gift for travelers this holiday season," Harris said of the recent drop in gas prices, which stood at $3.50 per gallon in the Bay Area on Monday.
Most Californians -- some 10 million of them -- will drive to their destinations, AAA forecasts, with the most popular hot spots being the mountains and Lake Tahoe area and Southern California. Nearly one-third of travelers will be families, with a family of four spending an average of $1,048 on their trip, the forecast said.
San Francisco International Airport, by far the most heavily used airport in the Bay Area, should be crowded again as the hub expects to wrap up its busiest year ever with a 1 to 2 percent increase over last year's holiday rush.
San Jose International Airport is anticipating a 3 percent bump over last year, with airlines reporting up to 97 percent of seats already booked on some flights.
"In other words, there's not much room; if you show up late for your flight, your seat's going to be given to someone else," said airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes. "Bottom line: Give plenty of time to get to the gate in time."
The good news for travelers looking to avoid especially bad crowds is that Christmas and New Year's Day fall on a Tuesday. Scott Yamasaki, a spokesman for Oakland International Airport, which is also expecting a small bump, said that means traffic should be spread out across the next two weekends.
Officials advise travelers to check weather and traffic reports and flight status before leaving, and to get a vehicle tuneup so your car can withstand the winter weather. Those traveling through Bay Area airports are urged to arrive 90 minutes early for domestic flights and two hours before takeoff of international flights, and to keep gifts unwrapped so airport security screeners don't need to be a grinch and unwrap them.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.
Holiday travel in California, by the numbers
11.7 million: People traveling at least 50 miles
10 million: People traveling by road
950,000: People traveling by air
398,000: People traveling by train, boat or other modes
838 miles: Average length of trip
$56: Average cost to rent a car for a day on the weekend
$95: Average nightly cost for a Two Diamond hotel
$203: Average cost per round-trip flight