Colorado Springs airport

AAA Colorado forecasts what could be the highest year-end travel volume ever recorded, with 1.88 million — or nearly one in three — Coloradans will travel this holiday season. According to AAA, that’s the 10th consecutive year of growth and the seventh straight year of reaching a new record-high travel volume.

“Soaring consumer confidence and falling gas prices are inspiring more Coloradans than ever to travel this holiday season,” said AAA Colorado spokesman Skyler McKinley said in a news release. “Still, with one third of the state planning to get up and go over the next couple of weeks, Coloradans should brace themselves for a steady drumbeat of traffic on our roads and at our airports.”

By the numbers 

More Americans will travel by car this holiday season than ever before. The 1.77 million Coloradans expected to pack up their cars for road trips is 4.5 percent higher than last year, and they’ll join a total of 102.1 million Americans on the nation’s roads.

The nearly 930,000 Coloradans who will travel by air this year is the highest level in 15 years, and a 4.5 percent increase over last year. All told, 6.7 million Americans will be taking to the skies over the holiday travel period.

Travel across trains, buses and cruise ships will increase by 4 percent to nearly 69,000 Coloradans — and 3.7 million passengers, nationwide.

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The 2018 year-end holiday period is defined as Saturday, Dec. 22 through Tuesday, Jan 1.

Economic drivers of travel

Economic growth remains steady as real gross domestic product is forecast to rise 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter compared with last year, according to AAA. Nationwide, the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.7 percent. Colorado’s current unemployment rate is 3.2 percent.

Consumer spending continues to drive U.S. economic growth, as rising incomes are accompanied by stable prices for goods and services, strong employment, and increasing household asset values.

“Consumers remain optimistic as consumer sentiment and consumer confidence levels remain well above figures seen in recent years,” according to a AAA news release.

Nationally, gas prices averaged $2.37 for the week of Dec. 17, down 26 cents from a month ago and 6 cents a year ago. In Colorado, motorists will pay an average of $2.41 for a gallon of regular, down 33 cents from a month ago and a nickel from this time last year.

Worst days to travel

Based on historical and recent travel trends, INRIX, in partnership with AAA, forecasts drivers will experience the most congestion just before the holiday week — starting on Wednesday, Dec. 19 — as commuters and holiday travelers mix on our nation’s busiest roadways.

“With a record-level number of travelers hitting the road this holiday, drivers should prepare for delays in major metro areas, including Denver. Thursday, December 20 will be the worst day to travel, nationwide,” McKinley said in the release. “Avoid traveling during peak commuting hours. Try to leave bright and early, or after the morning commute.”

Best Times to fly and book Christmas flights

An analysis of AAA’s flight booking data from the last three years revealed that most holiday air travelers will depart two or three days before Christmas and return the day after the holiday. This holiday season, Saturday, Dec. 22; Sunday, Dec. 23 and Wednesday, Dec. 26 will be the busiest days in the skies and at the airports. Fewer holiday travelers choose to fly on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, which are the lightest travel days around the Christmas holiday.

Most travelers booked their Christmas flights between Oct. 26 and Nov. 27, according to AAA, paying an average ticket price of $561 roundtrip. Last-minute planners who booked between Dec. 12 and Dec. 18 this year can expect to pay the lowest average airfares, at $488. Those travelers risk encountering limited availability — and preferred flights may already be sold out.

Car rental costs reach 10-year high, hotel prices mixed

Rental car daily rates have increased 3 percent over last year. At $76, the daily average car rental rate this holiday season is the most expensive in 10 years. Travelers will also pay a bit more at AAA Two Diamond hotels, where prices are 1 percent more than last year, or $122 per night. Conversely, the average rate for AAA Three Diamond hotels has fallen 3 percent to an average nightly cost of $152.