Thanksgiving travel rebounds in the Chattanooga area after a tepid 2020

·4 min read

Nov. 20—Marcherie Savage spent Thanksgiving 2020 by herself in Chattanooga, staying home to avoid the pandemic, but this year will be a very different matter.

"I went to school at Tennessee State University, so I have a bunch of friends that graduated from TSU and stayed in Nashville," Savage said. "I'm going up there to kick it with them this year."

With vaccines widely available and consumer confidence high, people are expected to travel for Thanksgiving this year in nearly pre-pandemic numbers.

AAA forecasts more than 53 million people will travel this Thanksgiving, which would be a 13% jump in holiday travel from depressed levels a year ago, and the largest increase year-over-year since 2005.

Most of those travelers — more than 48 million — are expected to take to the roads, where they'll find gas prices averaging $3.35 a gallon over Thanksgiving weekend.

Those would be the highest Thanksgiving gas prices since 2012, when they were around $3.44 a gallon, according to price-watching platform GasBuddy. Last year, with travel dampened by the pandemic, prices averaged $2.11 a gallon.

Gas prices won't alter her plans, but she does hope to try and beat the traffic, Savage said.

"I don't think about gas — it's one of those things that you just have to do," she said. "I did think about traffic. I'm going to leave really early Wednesday morning."

At the Chattanooga Airport, CEO Terry Hart predicts the typically busy travel holiday will be brisk compared to 2020 but won't approach 2019 levels.

In November 2020, 19,904 people boarded planes in Chattanooga versus 47,505 in November 2019 — down 58%.

"I can predict that this year will be better than last year, however, not to the level we were at in 2019," Hart said.

Airlines are offering about 25% less capacity, which suggests demand hasn't quite rebounded, Hart said.

"The schedule is not back to what it was back in 2019, but the bookings are encouraging," Hart said. "We've been seeing an increase in demand, but still with the caveat that COVID upticks in different areas are taking place, but I think people feel more comfortable about traveling."

Staffing levels are solid at the airport, but people should still leave themselves plenty of time to get through security and catch their flights, Hart added.

"Don't wait and come in 15 minutes before departure," he said.

Unlike during Thanksgiving 2020, COVID-19 vaccinations are widely available this year, though only about 59% of people in the U.S. and 49% of people in Tennessee are fully vaccinated.

This year, Savage feels comfortable traveling to see friends because she's vaccinated, she said. Savage, 30, has custody of her 17-year-old brother following her mother's death in 2019, and keeping herself and her family safe is critical, she said.

"I got both of the shots, and I just did it because my mom passed and I'm the guardian of my younger brother," she said. "It made me hop into a real responsible role really quickly."

The Thanksgiving weekend is typically a busy one for local attractions, and people are feeling ready to see friends and family and travel after many skipped it last year, said Barry White, CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Co.

"Compared to last year, there was consumer confidence down, COVID was at a high and people didn't have that opportunity to see friends and family," he said. "This year we anticipate more visitation during Thanksgiving, both in visiting friends and relatives and also just day trips."

Rock City, which is largely outdoors, had a strong finish to the year in 2020, with October visitation above 2019 levels, and November and December at about 90% of 2019. It's among the attractions likely to draw big numbers over this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, White added.

"People are off, and they're going to want to get out," White said.

Staff shortages may prove a bit of a challenge as people look for ways to pass the long weekend, he added. Jobs in the hospitality sector are up 1,200 from last year, but hotels and restaurants are having trouble filling those roles, he said.

And a shortage of another kind is putting a crimp in Savage's plan to give out turkeys on Saturday at Brainerd and Howard high schools with Pneuma Ministries.

"There's a turkey shortage," she said. "We're going to have to just give out gift cards."

Contact Mary Fortune at Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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