Lower gas prices fueling increase in Thanksgiving travel

Lower gas prices are giving more Carolinians than last year an appetite to travel this long Thanksgiving weekend, with the Myrtle Beach area expecting an offseason surge in visitors as many come here to celebrate.

Nearly half of the estimated 617,110 South Carolinians and 1.3 million North Carolinians who plan to travel more than 50 miles from home for the holiday are expected to start hitting the road Wednesday, with many of them returning Sunday, according to AAA Carolinas. The number of Carolinians traveling this holiday is up about 1 percent compared to Thanksgiving last year, a surge AAA Carolinas credits with significant drops in gas prices during the past two months.

The Thanksgiving holiday, which for many translates into a four-day weekend, is one of the busiest holiday travel periods of the year, and officials are bracing for the rush. The S.C. Highway Patrol will have more troopers on busy roads such as U.S. 501, U.S. 17, S.C. 544 and the interstates, and Myrtle Beach International Airport has set aside an extra 260 temporary parking spaces. Officials urge those traveling by air to arrive at the airport early, and those hitting the road to leave as early as they can Wednesday – before lunchtime – to avoid the peak afternoon congestion.

“If you are going to travel, the earlier the better,” said Lance Cpl. Sonny Collins with the S.C. Highway Patrol, adding that Wednesday and Sunday will be the two busiest travel days. “It’s still going to be busy, but you will probably miss that peak time.”

Roads could be more congested this Thanksgiving than previous years thanks to lower gas prices. Prices in South Carolina – which at $3.13 a gallon is the second-lowest average gas price in the country behind Missouri – have dropped 50 cents since peaking at $3.63 a gallon in mid-September. Prices this Thanksgiving are a penny or two less than Turkey Day last year. Myrtle Beach has the state’s cheapest average price at $3.05 a gallon.

Ninety percent of South Carolinians traveling for the holiday will drive to their destination, about 5,400 more than last year, AAA Carolinas said.

“Thanksgiving is the most traditional family holiday with the ‘turkey day’ always coming on a Thursday, creating a guaranteed four-day holiday for many,” David Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas, said in a news release. “The lower price at the pump will encourage more people to drive this Thanksgiving.”

The Myrtle Beach area will see an offseason surge in visitors coming here to celebrate, with lodging occupancy expected to tick up about 10 percent compared with Thanksgiving week last year, according to Coastal Carolina University’s Center for Resort Tourism.

Though a far cry from the summer crowds, Thanksgiving has become a nice offseason boost for some Grand Strand businesses, with families – many of them driving here in a few hours – coming to celebrate and take advantage of Black Friday shopping the day after Thanksgiving, officials said. Lodging occupancy this weekend is expected to hit about 55 percent, up substantially from the 34 percent and 43 percent of the past two weekends, according to CCU.

“We are expecting a good Thanksgiving weekend,” said Taylor Damonte of CCU’s tourism center. “A 50 percent [occupancy] weekend would be a substantial increase compared to the weeks before and certainly the weeks after.”

Thanksgiving guests are expected to start trickling in Wednesday at Ocean Lakes Family Campground, where all 893 campsites will be taken by the weekend, spokeswoman Rachel Beckerman said, adding that the campground has holiday-themed games for guests such as turkey bingo with food prizes for the Thanksgiving feast and a gingerbread house making contest.

“We are always crowded for Thanksgiving,” she said. “It’s one of the biggest holidays of the year. It’s one of their family traditions to come down here and have Thanksgiving at the beach.”

Regardless of where drivers are headed, Collins with the Highway Patrol urges them to wear seat belts, not get distracted by cellphones and allow plenty of time to get to their destinations.

“It is going to take you longer,” he said. “Patience will be key.”