The weather, along with the economy, handed setbacks to some. Heavy fog shrouded Chicago, causing more than 1,600 delays or cancellations in and out of its two airports and sending ripples around the nation. The effects of Hurricane Sandy added to the hassle for travelers on the East Coast.
Chris McLaughlin, 22, a senior at Boston College from West Chester, had hoped to combine his trip home for Thanksgiving with a medical-school interview in Philadelphia, but the storm delayed his interview, so he'll have to make an extra trip home next month. He figured that would cost him an extra $200.
It's not just family finances that are tighter. Airlines struggling to save on jet fuel and other expenses have cut the number of flights, leading to a jump in airfares.
After a couple of years of healthy postrecession growth, Thanksgiving travel this year was expected to be up only slightly, 0.7 percent, from last year, according to AAA's yearly Thanksgiving travel analysis. Among the 43.6 million Americans expected to journey 50 miles or more between Wednesday and Sunday, more were driving and fewer were flying. Their planned trips were shorter, too, by about 120 miles on average, the travel organization said.
As car ownership declines among younger Americans, many of those hitting the road were jumping onto buses. Intercity bus service has grown in recent years with curbside companies like Megabus.
Aided by smartphone apps, social media, and other technology, consumers are getting better at sniffing out deals and realize they need to be flexible with dates and even the airports they chose when booking, said Courtney Scott, a senior editor at Travelocity.
"I think people are really becoming smarter, more creative travelers and shoppers," Scott said.