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Nicole A. Elliott

Plan on hitting the road for the long Thanksgiving weekend?

Although the number of expected travelers is up this year, drivers who are cautious of prices at the pump will be keeping their holiday plans closer to home, said Ed Welsh, AAA Central Region general manager.

"This is the highest national price of gas that we’ve ever had around Thanksgiving time," Welsh said.

And in central New York, it’s around the highest price in the nation, he said. Going back just a few years, the average price for gasoline was $2.29 per gallon back in 2005; $2.22 in 2006; $3.07 in 2007; and $1.88 locally in 2008. From there, Welsh said prices jumped to $2.65 per gallon in 2009, then up to $2.86 just one year ago, to an average $3.60 per gallon right now.

"Our area is among the highest in the nation, excluding some big cities like San Francisco," Welsh said.

The price has dropped over the past week, according to gasoline price website Average retail gasoline prices in New York have fallen 3.5 cents per gallon in the past week compared to the national average that has fallen 5.7 cents.

"Gasoline prices have continued their slow decline . . . with the national average sagging to its lowest level since this past February," according to Senior Petroleum Analyst Patrick DeHaan. "Many motorists may be giving thanks for the lower gasoline prices — until they realize that average prices will still easily exceed prior Thanksgiving Day records."

Holiday travel up

Regardless of the rising cost of fuel, AAA estimates that travel during the Thanksgiving holiday will be up by 4 percent compared to 2010.

This Thanksgiving, 42.5 million people in the U.S. are expected to hit the road to visit family and friends — the highest number of holiday travelers since the start of the recession.

Travel tracker AAA said 4 percent more Americans than last year will journey at least 50 miles from home, with about 90 percent of them driving. Another 8 percent plan to fly, but AAA notes that higher airfares and less available seats have forced many would-be fliers to drive instead. This is the third consecutive Thanksgiving that Americans have taken to the road in higher numbers than in the past year.

The increase in holiday travel is welcome news for an industry that has been struggling to get Americans back on the road. Memorial Day saw no increase in vacations and travel was down for both July 4 and Labor Day breaks.

Welsh said. "Obviously the cost of travel is going up, but people are saying they’re keeping their travel plans closer. You’re also seeing more people staying with friends and relatives" as opposed to hotel and motel stays.

For those who do plan to make overnight accommodations, rates for mid-range hotels are expected to increase 6 percent from last year, with travelers spending an average of $145 a night. Lower-priced motels are seeing a 7 percent increase to $103.

Kelly Blazosky, president of Oneida County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it could be a toss up as to whether local hotels and motels will benefit. "Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, they’re all ‘family-centric’ holidays and sometimes it’s hard to predict" how successful they will be "because people often stay with friends and family."

AAA said Thanksgiving airfares are 20 percent higher than last year with an average lowest round-trip rate of $212 for the top 40 U.S. air routes.

Efficient cars cut costs

As New Yorkers prepare for one of the busiest travel holidays of the year, a new Environment New York report found that more fuel efficient cars would make significant cuts in oil use and save state residents roughly $14.8 million at the gas pump this Thanksgiving alone.

"On Thanksgiving, New Yorkers should be able to travel over the river and through the woods to Thanksgiving dinner, without having to stop at the gas pump," said Eric Whalen, field organizer for Environment New York. "Cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars would cut pollution and keep enough in each New York family’s wallet this Thanksgiving to bring a few extra pumpkin pies to dinner."

With roughly 900,000 families taking to the road to visit family and friends this Thanksgiving, New Yorkers are expected to spend roughly $31.7 million at the gas pump for their holiday travel. Environment New York pointed to the inefficiency of cars and trucks as one of the main reasons New Yorkers are forced to spend so much at the pump, and why cars consume more oil — and create more pollution — than is necessary.