Winter storms may be brewing, roads could get icy again and gas prices have been ticking upward since last month, but that won't stop Americans from traveling during the holiday season this year, according to AAA.
The automobile club's annual forecast predicts that 94.5 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more between Saturday, Dec. 21, and Wednesday, Jan. 1, an increase of 0.6 percent over last year.
The increase comes, says the group, despite weak economic growth, minimal employment gains and continuing declines in consumer confidence.
Nevertheless, the upward trend marks the fifth consecutive year of increases and the highest travel volume recorded for the season. However, the impact of the increase will likely also be mitigated this year as the group's definition of the holiday season spans 12 days, one more than the 11 it totaled last year.
"Of all the travel holidays, %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%the year-end holiday season remains the least volatile as Americans will not let economic conditions dictate their travel plans to celebrate the holidays," said AAA COO Marshall L. Doney in a statement.
Ninety-one percent of them will travel by car, says the group, up 0.9 percent from last year. They'll also travel farther -- 805 miles roundtrip versus 760 miles last year -- with those in the Rocky Mountain states expected to travel the most (970 miles on average) and those in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee expected to travel the least (646 miles).
"We're driving up to Massachusetts to see family, staying over in Connecticut one night and continuing the rest of the way on Christmas Eve," said Taylor Schachter of Alexandria, Va., who is opting to drive with her husband and two small children rather than fly.
"A 10-hour drive with a 12-month-old is not exactly my idea of a good time," she said, "but any other means of travel is just too expensive."
According to AAA, other travelers appear to concur as the number of fliers is expected to drop to 5.5 million people, a 1.4 percent drop from last year. With many travelers buying tickets far in advance, the airlines have been able to raise fares to the point that many destinations are significantly pricier than they were a year ago.
Among those experiencing the greatest spike in average fares over Christmas, according to Kayak.com: Milwaukee (up 16 percent), Fort Lauderdale, Fla., (12 percent), Orlando, Fla., (12 percent), St. Louis (12 percent) and New York (11 percent).
By comparison, those showing the greatest "drop" in average Christmas airfares included Minneapolis, San Francisco, Cleveland and Seattle, all of which slipped a mere 2 percent.
Little wonder, then, that AAA expects more people to hit the roads this holiday season -- one reason, perhaps, the group is warning travelers to go easy on the liquid-based holiday spirits if they're going to get behind the wheel.
According to the group's Foundation for Traffic Safety, one in five of all licensed drivers reported having driven when they thought their alcohol level might have been close to, or possibly over, the legal limit in the last year.
Worse yet, says the group, alcohol-related crashes represent one in three motor vehicle deaths. Given the otherwise joyous nature of the season, that should be a particularly sobering statistic this time of year.
Why Your Bank Thinks Someone Stole Your Credit Card
AAA Forecast: More Travelers Hitting the Road for Holidays
One reason why Marquis' gas purchases might have triggered a fraud lockdown? Filling their tank is a common first move for credit card thieves.
"Some of the things they look at are small-dollar transactions at gas stations, followed by an attempt to make a larger purchase," explains Adam Levin of Identity Theft 911.
The idea is that thieves want to confirm that the card actually works before going on a buying spree, so they'll make a small purchase that wouldn't catch the attention of the cardholder. Popular methods include buying gas or making a small donation to charity, so banks have started scrutinizing those transactions.
Of course, it's not a simple matter of buying gas or giving to charity -- if those tasks triggered alerts constantly, no one would do either with a credit card. But Levin points to another possible explanation: Purchases made in a high-crime area are going to be held to a higher standard by the bank.
"It's almost a form of redlining," he says. "If there are certain [neighborhoods] where they've experienced an enormous amount of fraud, then anytime they see a transaction in the neighborhood, it sends an alert."
(Indeed, Erin tells me that one of the gas purchases that triggered an alert took place in a rough part of Detroit, which she visited specifically for the cheap gas.)
People who steal credit cards and credit card numbers usually aren't doing it so they can outfit their home with electronics and appliances. They don't want the actual products they're fraudulently buying; they're just in it to make money. So banks are always on the lookout for purchases of items that can easily be re-sold.
"Anytime a product can be turned around quickly for cash value, those are going to be the items that you would probably assume that, if you were a thief, you would want to get to first," says Karisse Hendrick of the Merchant Risk Council, which helps online merchants cut down on fraud. Levin says electronics are common choices for fraudsters, as are precious metals and jewelry.
Many thieves don't want to go through the rigmarole of buying laptops and jewelry, then selling them online or at pawnshops. They'd much prefer to just turn your stolen card directly into cold, hard cash.
There are a few ways that they can do that, and all of them will raise red flags at your bank or credit union. Using a credit card to buy a pricey gift card or load a bunch of money on a prepaid debit card is a fast way to attract the suspicions of your credit card issuer. Levin adds that some identity thieves also use stolen or cloned credit cards to buy chips at a casino, which they can then cash out (or, if they're feeling lucky, gamble away).
When assessing whether a purchase might be fraudulent, banks aren't just looking at what you bought and where you bought it. They're also asking if it's something you usually buy.
"The issuers know the buying patterns of a cardholder," says Hendrick. "They know the typical dollar amount of transaction and the type of purchase they put on a credit card."
Your bank sees a fairly high percentage of your purchases, so it knows if one is out of character for you. A thrifty individual who suddenly drops $500 on designer clothes should expect to get a call -- or have to make one when the bank flags the transaction. If you rarely travel and your card is suddenly used to purchase a flight to Europe, that's going to raise some red flags.
Speaking of Europe, the other big factor in banks' risk equations is whether you're making a purchase in a new area. I bought a computer just days after moving from Boston to New York, and had to confirm to the bank that I was indeed trying to make the purchase. Levin likewise says that making purchases in two different cities over a short period of time raises suspicions.
"I go from New York to California a lot, and invariably someone will call me [from the bank], " he says. Since one person can't go shopping in New York and California at the same time, any time a bank sees multiple purchases in multiple locations in a short period, it's going to be suspicious.