Road weary travelers take a break

Nearly one-third of Americans are expected to journey 50 miles or more during the holidays, according to AAA’s annual holiday travel forecast. A projected 94.5 million people will be traveling, an increase of 500,000 over last year.

The West Virginia Welcome Center rest stop off I-77 in Williamstown has already seen an uptick in travelers.

“The number of visitors Saturday mirrored what we normally see in the summertime. That was probably our biggest day so far, and we could see another big day on Christmas Eve.” Debbie Florence, welcome center supervisor, said Sunday.

Although it was rainy, she said the weekend’s warm weather probably enhanced the number of people hitting the highways for the holidays.

“Many people were happy to see the rain rather than snow,” Florence said.

Wendy and Bob Warren, who were traveling from Berea, Ky., to the Akron/Canton area, agreed.

“You couldn’t get better weather for traveling this time of year,” Wendy said, adding that holiday traffic wasn’t too bad Sunday afternoon.

George and Cindy Botzman of Kent, Ohio, were returning from a family get together at Disney World in Florida Sunday.

“The temperature was 85 degrees when we left, which was a little warm for December in that area,” Cindy said. “Disney World was beautiful and it was wonderfully decorated for the holidays.”

But George noted as they headed back north on Saturday, traffic in the southbound lanes was becoming somewhat congested with holiday travelers.

Following a weekend of record high temperatures near 70 degrees, the weather turns much more seasonable today and is expected to continue through Christmas, including the possibility of some snow Christmas Eve, according to the National Weather Service in Charleston, W.Va.

“There’s a chance of rain Monday, mostly in West Virginia, but also a slight chance of rain in the Marietta area. And the temperatures will be colder, with a high of only 40 degrees Monday and a night time low in the 20s,” said Liz Sommerville, forecaster with the NWS Charleston office.

She said rains will diminish today, but there’s a possibility of snow and ice mixing with rain in higher elevations, especially in the mountainous areas of West Virginia.

Daily high temperatures in the mid 30s to 40 with lows in the 20s are expected through the remainder of this week, and Sommerville said there is a slight chance for a white Christmas locally.

“The best chance for snow begins Tuesday morning with a 20 to 30 percent possibility of scattered snow showers,” she said. “That chance increases to around 50 percent in the mountains.”

Sommerville said skies will be clearing on Christmas day which will allow temperatures to drop a bit more through next weekend.

“After Christmas Eve the next best chance for snow would be in the mountain areas on Thursday,” she said.

Fuel prices are apparently not hampering travelers this year. AAA reported the national average for a gallon of unleaded fuel was $3.24 Sunday, the same price as a year ago.

Gas prices in Ohio averaged between $3.10 and $3.26 per gallon this weekend. In West Virginia the fuel prices ranged from $3.17 to $3.39.

“People don’t seem too concerned about the gas prices,” Florence said. “We usually have some questions about fuel prices, but we haven’t had anyone asking about it at all this year.”

AAA East Central in Pittsburgh agreed.

“Typically, Americans travel during the holidays regardless of economic conditions or gas prices,” said Jim Lehman, president of AAA East Central. “For the first time in three years, the holiday period covers 12 days instead of 11, providing travelers with an extra day to visit family and friends or squeeze in a year-end vacation.”

AAA defines the year-end holiday travel season as Saturday, Dec. 21, to Wednesday, Jan. 1.

“We are seeing a lot of Christmas travelers, and an unusual number of families who said they’re headed for Disney World in Florida for the holidays,” Florence said. “We also seem to be getting a lot of inquiries about where people can see Christmas lighting displays in the state, like the holiday lights Oglebay Park. But we also refer them to the local displays.”

Those planning to fly this season should know that security is going to be tight at the nation’s airports, said Ruth Nagy, managing director of travel operations for AAA East Central.

The airports will be busier than normal, which will cause significant delays, she said. Travelers should arrive no later than two hours before their flight departs.

Airport websites keep their security waiting times updated throughout the holiday season, said travel agent Kim Walters with U.S. Tours in Parkersburg. Travelers can refer to these times and adjust their arrival time earlier as needed to make sure they get through security in time for their flight, she said.

If the airline offers the option of checking in for your flight early, travelers should take the opportunity to do so, said Nagy.

“Checking in early allows your boarding passes to be created and waiting on you when you arrive,” said Nagy. “This option allows you to bypass the ticket counter, and the lines you will find there.”

Those traveling with gifts must remember not to wrap them before they fly, said Nagy.

“Security at the airport must unwrap every present they find in order to see what it is, which only adds to the delays,” she said. “Wait until you arrive at your destination to wrap the presents.”

If you are traveling internationally, make sure that all of your documents, including your passport, are carried by hand with your personal bag, said Walters. These documents, along with your personal medications, should never be placed with checked luggage, and be within arm’s reach at all times.

Gretchen Richards contributed to this article.