CHICAGO — Feeling the pinch of the sluggish economic recovery, many Americans setting out on the nation's annual Thanksgiving migration had to sacrifice summer vacations, rely on relatives for airfare or scour the Web for travel deals to ensure they made it home.
It's not just tight family finances making travel tough. Airlines struggling to save on jet fuel and other expenses have cut the number of flights, leading to a jump in airfares. Those hitting the roads face high gas prices and rising tolls. Now, with talk of the nation sliding off a "fiscal cliff" come January, many travelers said they're accepting that sacrifices for pricy holiday journeys have become the norm.
"You become immune to it, I guess," said Chris Zukowski, a 43-year-old locomotive engineer from the Chicago suburb of Huntley, as he hugged his wife and three children goodbye at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and lamented he could not afford to join them on the holiday trip to New Jersey.
"You have to cut back on things just to make sure that you can afford to do stuff like this, so they can go visit grandma," he said, referring to his son and two daughters.
If the nation's travel patterns are any kind of barometer for the state of the economy, the travel forecast for Thanksgiving week suggested a slight upward nudge as people and businesses recover slowly from the 2007-09 recession in which Americans lost nearly a quarter of their wealth.
Around 43.6 million Americans were expected to journey 50 miles or more between Wednesday and Sunday, just a 0.7 percent increase from last year, according to AAA's yearly Thanksgiving travel analysis. After a couple years of healthy post-recession growth, this year's numbers suggested it will take a stronger economy to lift travel demand significantly, the travel organization said.
More people are driving, fewer are flying and the average distance traveled was expected to be nearly 17 percent — or about 120 miles — shorter than a year ago, it said.
Army Pfc. Jordan Clark, of Biloxi, Miss., said he was only able to fly because relatives pooled their resources to buy his ticket.
"It's been difficult. My parents help out, my grandparents," the 20-year-old serviceman said before getting on a flight from Chicago to San Antonio. He wasn't so lucky over the summer, when he had to make the same journey by bus in what became a three-day ordeal thanks to breakdowns. But it saved him more than $200.
Some families are even agreeing to bump Thanksgiving dinner to Saturday, for example, allowing those traveling long distances to get cheaper, off-peak fares and avoid crowds, said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation researcher at DePaul University.
Aided by smartphone apps, social media and other technology, consumers are getting better at sniffing out deals and are realizing they need to be flexible with dates and even with which airports they chose when booking, said Courtney Scott, a senior editor at Travelocity.
"I think people are really becoming smarter, more creative travelers and shoppers," Scott said.
For some travelers, the coping mechanism was decidedly less sophisticated: Travel now, worry about the costs later.
"I think it's my personal style to say, 'It's the holidays. Who cares?' And deal with the consequences later," said Olivia Melman, who flew from Chicago to Philadelphia on Tuesday. The 22-year-old, who works in human relations at Citigroup in New York City, said the costs would set her back, but family is a priority.
Having skipped their Thanksgiving trip last year, Nishiya Sivaruban and her husband were able to save enough to take their two children to the Hawaiian island of Kauai on a special holiday journey. They saved about $200 each on airfare by flying out of O'Hare instead of Milwaukee, which is closer to their home in Waukesha, Wis.
She and her husband are originally from Sri Lanka and have family links to the founder of a Hindu temple and monastery on Kauai that they were excited about visiting.
"There's a lot of things we're thankful for so we wanted to go to that temple," she said.
Associated Press writer Maryclaire Dale contributed to this report from Philadelphia.