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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Gabby Lagemann, right, hugs her mother, Pamela Colombi, at Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012. Lagemann's parents flew in from Nebraska to celebrate the holidays with their daughter.

SALT LAKE CITY — Getting out of town for the holidays is one of the more highly anticipated times of the year for many families. And count sisters Memory Parrish and Lisa Harmon among the happy travelers, as together with their spouses and combined eight children they reunited at the Salt Lake City International Airport Wednesday.

“This is the first time at Christmas that we’ve come to Utah,” Parrish said. The families flew in from Tennessee and Mississippi to spend a few days skiing and seeing the sights of the Mountain West.

Elsewhere, transplanted Salt Lake resident Sven Haynes was especially excited to spend the holidays with his 6-year old daughter, Annika, who flew out from Georgia. It was her first trip to Utah and Haynes first chance to reconnect with his little girl in two months.

“She lives most the time with her mother … she has just come here to spend Christmas and New Year’s with me,” Haynes said. “It’s a family reunification!”

Similar scenes repeated themselves throughout the terminal as individuals and families arrived and departed to destinations far and wide as the holiday travel season kicks into full gear.

TripAdvisor reported that 45 percent of travelers are planning to trek somewhere for the December holidays — up from 42 percent last year.

Of those taking trips, 63 percent will travel for Christmas, 31 percent will do so for New Year’s and 4 percent will travel for Hanukkah, the report stated.

The survey also noted that 61 percent of travelers plan to visit family for the holidays, with 23 percent visiting friends. Forty-eight percent of travelers are expected to make driving the primary mode of transportation during the December holiday season this year — 4 percent less than last year’s 52 percent.

Air travelers should expect longer lines at the airports as 46 percent among those traveling plan to fly to their destination, up from 42 percent in 2011. The report said that 49 percent of travelers plan to stay with family and friends, while 42 percent plan to stay in a hotel, with 9 percent headed off to a vacation rental.

The Mountain West

Millions of Mountain West residents are expected to set a new record for the highest number of travelers during this holiday season, according to AAA Utah.  

The travel organization predicted that 7.1 million Mountain West residents will travel during the holiday season — an overall increase of 1.4 percent compared to 2011.

“For the fourth consecutive year, the Mountain West region has seen a slow to steady increase in travel volume,” said AAA Utah spokesperson Rolayne Fairclough. “This season, we are now experiencing the highest number of travelers as Mountain West residents kick-start the New Year with a holiday vacation.”

AAA estimates that more than 6.3 million Mountain West residents drive during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to reach their destinations — up 1.1 percent over last year. The number of air travelers is expected to rise 4 percent  as more than 524,000 Mountain West take to the skies.

About 244,000 Utah residents are expected to travel by other modes of transportation, such as boats or trains — an increase of nearly four percent compared 2011.

Nationally, AAA projects that more than 93 million people will travel at least 50 miles during the holidays, a 1.6 percent increase over last year. The average Mountain West family of four will spend an average of $694 on their holiday travel over approximately 1,038 miles, the report stated.

Gas prices

Fortunately, Utah motorists received an early Christmas gift as gasoline prices fell 31 cents during the past month. Utah ranked third among the 10 states reporting the greatest decreases in gasoline prices in the past 30 days, with the current price for a gallon of regular gasoline at $3.40 — 24 cents higher than a year ago.

All Utah cities tracked by AAA reported double-digit decreases since last month with Logan drivers experiencing the biggest drop — a whopping 42 cents in the past month. Vernal reported the smallest drop at 25 cents.

The national average price at the pump was $3.33 per gallon, a nickel more than a year ago. AAA predicts that with only a short time left in 2012, the average fuel price this year will be the highest ever on record.

“Prices at the pump have steadily declined across the country as demand continues to be low and supplies remain robust,” Fairclough said. “The exception is the East Coast where supplies are increasing but remain somewhat tight following the disruption from Hurricane Sandy. While the demand will increase slightly for the holidays, overall demand is expected to remain low into 2013, keeping prices down.”

Early forecast

Forecasters predict the chances for inclement weather in Utah increase as Christmas Eve approaches.

KSL chief meteorologist Kevin Eubank said some snow is expected along the Wasatch Front on Dec. 24, while travelers moving through the Midwest or along the East Coast will have mostly clear skies and very few travel delays. However, those in the Pacific Northwest, Southern California or Southeast regions could have some storms to contend with.

“Overall, air traffic going across the country — no problem,” Eubank said. But on Christmas Day, Colorado should see snow and rain could hit the Gulf States, he added.

The weather patterns strengthen on Dec. 26, he said, with storms expected to intensify in many areas of the country.

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“Pre-Christmas, no major travel problems,” Eubank said. “After Christmas, (with) a storm going through the upper Midwest, Colorado and then down to the southern Gulf States … that could cause problems for people going in and out of Atlanta and (other air connections hubs.)”

AAA Winter Travel Survival Tips

· Pack a cellular phone and car charger. Have emergency numbers available.

· If you become snowbound, stay with your vehicle. It is an excellent shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to find you.

· Stay focused while driving. Avoid distractions such as text messaging, talking on the phone and adjusting the radio or other electronic devices.

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