This Christmas travel season could be the busiest in six years, with AAA predicting that 93.3 million Americans will hit the road.
That's 1.6 percent more than last year and just 400,000 people shy of the 2006 record.
Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller said motorists should be prepared for the heavy traffic.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
"There will be a lot of people on the road. Give yourself time. It is Pennsylvania and inclement weather can sneak up on us at any time," Heller said. "Slow down, give yourself time to get there and have a safe trip, so we don't have to investigate that accident."
More cars will crowd the highways than ever before, largely because finding a seat on a plane at a desirable price has gotten more difficult. AAA said a record 84.4 million people will drive at least 50 miles between Saturday and Jan. 1. That's 90.5 percent of holiday travelers, up from 89.3 percent six years ago.
Highway travel also is expected to be up in AAA's Mid-Atlantic Region, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, said Bevi Powell, AAA East Central spokeswoman.
by the numbers
About 39,000 motorists in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and western Pennsylvania are expected to call AAA for service during the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Here are the number of anticipated calls:
16,000: towing service
6,500: replace dead car batteries
6,000: replace flat tires
4,800: sets of keys retrieved from locked vehicles
2,000: vehicles pulled out of snow or mud
Sources: AAA East Central, The Associated Press
Powell said 9.3 million people are expected to drive at least 50 miles from home - an increase of 1.5 percent - during the holiday travel period, which runs from today through Jan. 2.
"People take their travel trips at this time of the year, no matter the economic conditions or the price of gas," Powell said.
"We were pretty busy through the summer when the gas prices were high. If people want to go, they just go and budget for it," said Mary Lou Lee, auto travel manager for AAA's Altoona office.
In the Altoona area, the price of regular unleaded gasoline hit $3.99 per gallon in late March, dropped to $3.21 in early July and rose back to $3.99 in mid-September before starting to fall again, according to AAA East Central.
The current price of $3.45 is a bit higher than the $3.36 per gallon at this time last year, according to AAA.
"Prices are coming down but are coming down slower this year. There were some issues with refineries, pipelines and supplies, and then Hurricane Sandy hit, so the prices are coming down later in the year," Powell said.
While about 1 million more people will drive to their holiday destinations, fewer will travel by plane.
Airlines for America, the industry's trade group, estimates that about 15 million people will fly between Dec. 17 and Jan. 6. The group said there will be 42 million segments - a takeoff and landing - flown by passengers. That's about 300,000, or 1 percent, fewer segments than last year.
Planes will also be fuller than last Christmas. The group's chief economist John Heimlich expects 86 percent of seats to be filled with paying passengers, up from 85 percent last year. That number could climb to 90 percent on the busiest days: this coming weekend, Dec. 26 and Jan. 2.
Air travel is expected to be up about 4.8 percent in the mid-Atlantic Region, Powell said.
Rachel Gingrich, owner of Heritage Travel, Altoona, said she is doing about the same amount of business as last year and is surprised so many people are planning to fly.
"For a lot of people, the kids are out of school and it is the only time they can travel. I have people who are going on cruises and visiting places like Disney World in Florida," Gingrich said. "We have people who booked several months ago and others who just say we are going to go and will pay the higher prices."
Air prices are way up for flights to Orlando, home of Disney World.
"A normal flight to Orlando in January through March is usually about $190 per seat. Because it is the holiday season, we are seeing people pay $500 to $600 per person for a round-trip and these are not direct flights; they have to change planes," Gingrich said.
Donna Wilt, owner of Classic Travel, Duncansville, also said her business is about the same as it was this time last year.
"I can tell you people are going away for Christmas and New Year's. We have booked several trips," Wilt said. "Our revenues are about the same as last year. One day you get a lot of calls, and the next day you don't get any. It is up and down."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467. The Associated Press contributed to this story.