One of the busiest travel weeks of the year is well under way in the Bay Area, as more people are packing airports and freeways than during any Thanksgiving rush since the Great Recession began.
The region's busiest airport, San Francisco International, is anticipating record Thanksgiving traffic while AAA forecasts overall travel in Northern California to grow for the fourth straight Turkey Day.
Overall Thanksgiving week traffic in California is expected to increase by 0.6 percent compared with last year, the fourth straight year of small growth, with 5.4 million Californians traveling at least 50 miles this weekend, mirroring national trends, AAA said.
"I'm bracing for the traffic," said Concord resident Sara Holderfield, 38, who is driving with her husband and their 1-year-old on their annual pilgrimage to see her family in Bakersfield. "We have to leave right after work (Wednesday) when everyone else is leaving."
Most people will drive, and though gas prices are about the same as they were in November last year, they are down nearly a dollar a gallon in the Bay Area since record prices at the pump six weeks ago. But most people plan Thanksgiving trips so far ahead that the recent drop won't change travel habits, said AAA spokeswoman Cynthia Harris.
Compared with last year's Thanksgiving rush, SFO expects a 3 percent bump in traffic while San Jose International Airport expects 2 percent more traffic. Neither airport has seen its long-term lots fill yet but expects them to be at capacity Tuesday or Wednesday, while Oakland International Airport, which is also expecting a bump in traffic, is not expecting lots to fill up.
The busiest travel day was Friday at SFO, and should be Wednesday at San Jose, while next Sunday is also expected to be particularly congested everywhere.
"There's just going to be a lot more people in the terminals; people traveling with heavy bags, winter clothing," said Rosemary Barnes, a spokeswoman for San Jose airport.
This week, Whole Foods produce coordinator Nick Moless is crisscrossing from Phoenix to Seattle to Portland for work and back home to see family in Santa Cruz. He's anticipating the normal travel crowd to give way to families and other occasional fliers.
"You get a lot of people traveling to see their families and they're on tight time schedules and it seems like there's a higher stress level. They don't have as much patience and aren't quite as friendly in the line," said Moless, a 34-year-old San Jose native. "More than anything I play causal observer and hope for the best."
The National Weather Service forecasts about a quarter-inch to a half-inch of rain in the Bay Area on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, but otherwise expects clear skies with highs in the mid-60s and lows in the 40s. Snow is expected above 7,000 feet, which is about the same elevation as Donner Summit in the Sierra Nevada.
Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area are expected to be the top destination for Bay Area travelers, followed by the San Diego area and then Las Vegas, Harris said.
"It's about being together and sharing a meal, and for some people, yes, shopping," Harris said. "It's definitely the most important holiday" for travel.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.
Tips for Thanksgiving holiday travel
AAA and airport officials advise travelers to avoid peak travel times, particularly from 3-7 p.m. on the roads, and to arrive 90 minutes ahead of takeoff for domestic flights and two hours early for international trips.
Try to get dropped off at the airport or take transit if you haven't already booked a parking spot.
Don't pack wrapped gifts in carry-on or checked luggage because the TSA may have to unwrap it, don't bring fluid in containers larger than 3 ounces and make sure to check flight status with your airline before leaving for the airport.
New TSA regulations this year allow children 12 and younger to keep their shoes on through airport security while seniors 75 and over can keep their shoes and light jackets on.
Drivers headed to the mountains or around California can check Caltrans' website, quickmap.dot.ca.gov, for real-time updates on chain requirements and traffic, or call 1-800-427-7623.