PHILADELPHIA - Thousands of Pennsylvanians were hitting the road, railways and skies for Thanksgiving despite high gas prices, a still sluggish economy and the lingering effects from the havoc wreaked by superstorm Sandy last month.
AAA Mid-Atlantic projects 1.6 million Pennsylvanians will be travelling 50 miles or more away from home over the holiday weekend, between Wednesday and Sunday. Those figures project a slight increase of 0.3 per cent over last year.
But the group's study was done before Sandy and the aftermath from the storm could ultimately make the numbers lower than 2011, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Jenny Robinson said.
"It is too early to tell the full impact of Sandy for local Thanksgiving travel," Robinson said in a statement. "But many area travellers are affected by the storm, or have family and friends who are impacted, and are still figuring how to celebrate the holiday. Some folks are busy cleaning up storm damage, or trying to restock their kitchens after having to throw out spoiled food."
The storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers across the state, most in the Philadelphia area. Some customers were without electricity for days as utilities struggled to restore service. Other Pennsylvanians have been spending additional time and effort repairing their hard-hit shore homes in neighbouring New Jersey, Robinson said.
Gas prices also remain more than 20 cents a gallon above the national average in Pennsylvania, Robinson said, something that could further stunt travel.
"People are a little bit tapped out," she said.
The storm forced Chris McLaughlin, a 22-year-old from West Chester and a senior at Boston College, to reschedule a medical school interview in Philadelphia, which means he has to make an extra trip next month. He ended up flying home for Thanksgiving on Wednesday and all told, the change of plans will set him back about $200, he said.
"It killed me," he said of the financial impact of the storm, which also left his parents without power for eight days. "I think we were feeling we could loosen up a little bit (financially), but with Sandy and everything that happened, (people) feel like they can't."
At Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, Eva Daly, 36, was waiting for her sister's train to arrive from Connecticut. She said budgets are tight for everyone in her family but they place their spending priority on holiday gatherings.
"You have to decide what's important," she said, "and for us it's most important that we get together, so we cut back somewhere else if we need to."
Bill Waltrip, 58, was waiting at Philadelphia International Airport for his wife to arrive from North Carolina, where they have a house in Chapel Hill. Waltrip, who works in pharmaceutical research, had been laid off for a year and eventually took a job in Philadelphia. Given the family finances, he has cashed in his retirement and his oldest son took time off his studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
"I've been here since September, and been home once," Waltrip said. "I like the job. Of course, I miss being home. I miss my wife. I miss my dogs."
Their son in Boston won't be with them for Thanksgiving due to travel costs, but they hope to gather all three of their children in North Carolina for Christmas. And Waltrip expects to start working remotely from there in January.
"I think things are fragile," he said of the national economy. "(But) I think we're in much better shape than we were four years ago."
Randy Meyer, 56, a central Missouri farmer, flew to Philadelphia on Wednesday with his wife, daughter, two grandchildren and mother-in-law. The effects of a September hurricane in the Gulf helped boost his corn and bean crops after a drought earlier this year. His farm had a decent year, but he still worries about the economy.
"I fear it could get worse, because we can't keep accumulating more debt than we can pay off," Meyer said.
Associated Press writer Maryclaire Dale reported from Philadelphia.