Despite fears, Americans take to skies, roads

A strong urge to be with family this Thanksgiving impelled many to pack bags

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Refusing to be cowed by terrorism, many Americans are pushing through the fog of fear this Thanksgiving and stepping into planes, trains, and automobiles.

To be sure, many aren't flying: The airline industry expects a 15-to-20 percent slump compared with last year.

Yet even if it means going by train or bus or car, a majority of Americans are bucking any fear of traveling for at least three basic reasons: a stronger-than-usual yearning to be with family, a defiant sense that terrorism "wins" if they stay home, and a bargain-hunter's delight at discovering the many airfare and hotel deals out there.

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Take Athina Giannopoulos. For the past 12 years, this plastic surgeon and mother of two stayed home in Durham, N.C., for extended-family Thanksgiving feasts full of fare from her native Greece.

This year, however, she and her family are jetting off to, of all places, Hong Kong and Tokyo. "We shouldn't show anybody we're afraid to travel," Ms. Giannopoulos insists in a steely tone. "Because that's what they want." Besides, since Sept. 11,"We're trying to see the world in a more global sense," she says. And traveling helps.

Or there's Kali Jo Reynolds, a veterinary student at the University of California at Berkeley. After her father decided he could not face his annual plane flight to visit her, she announced she was coming to him, despite his adamant objections.

" 'Honey, I don't want you to fly,' " Tom Reynolds told her.

"Dad, don't worry about it," came the response. "I'm not afraid."

Shaking his bearded head and smiling warmly, Mr. Reynolds says, "I guess you can't tell a 27-year-old what to do."

Some statistics also hint at people pushing past fear.

One survey of leisure travelers found 14 percent saying their holiday travel plans had been affected by the Sept. 11 events. Yet since the attacks, airlines have cut their capacity by more than 25 percent, observes Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad" travel-advice books.

The gap between those numbers, he says, hints that while many business and vacation travelers are canceling their flights, fewer holiday travelers are doing so.

"The desire to get together with family" - the reason behind most holiday travel - "is enough to overcome the fears that have been keeping people off planes since Sept. 11," says Mr. Hasbrouck.

Indeed, many planes flying since Sept. 11 have been virtually empty. But most observers expect holiday flights to be full-to-bursting.

For Giannopoulos, who's headed to Asia with her family, being airborne this holiday season is one of the best things she can do for the country.

"We need to support the travel business," she says.

Also, she wasn't looking forward to a season of high-priced gifts and parties, which seem shallow.

"It's a little different this year," she says, "a little sad." In fact, their family isn't doing presents this year - just traveling. "This is a year to enjoy other things, family things, and singing - not shopping."

But if family considerations aren't a strong-enough motivator, maybe money is.

A Maritz Poll found 23 percent of Americans saying that they would take a different mode of transportation than usual this holiday season.

Of those, about half said they usually travel by plane - meaning this year they're not flying. But the other half said they usually go by car - meaning they're now perhaps flying.

The second group are the bargain hunters, says Maritz executive Rick Garlick. "If these people can fly to their destination in an hour - versus drive there in six hours - and the price is right," they're choosing the airplane, he says.

And there's the widely cited figure from AAA that a record 87 percent of Americans will take a motor vehicle to their Thanksgiving feast, up from 83 percent last year.

That increase doesn't only reflect a newfound American fear of flying, says AAA spokesman Jerry Cheske. "It's really not fair to blame the drop-off in air travel on the events of 9/11," he says.

Cheap gas prices - they've dropped some 30 cents nationwide in the past two months - and the lean economy are equally, if not more responsible. "During periods of down economic times, people look for ways to economize - and one way is to take trips closer to home," which means they can drive, rather than fly.

That's what Bill Tidwell, who lives amid the woodsy hills of Three Rivers, Calif., near the entrance to Sequoia National Park, is doing.

"We don't normally go anywhere for Thanksgiving," he says.

But this year, at his son's suggestion, all three Tidwell generations are caravaning down to the California coast. "We noticed a two-page spread in the newspaper urging people to please come to Los Angeles and to the beach," he says.

They found a good deal at a Santa Barbara hotel and decided to go. It's good family time at a cut-rate price.

For Tilman Ehrbeck and his family, the decision not to fly this holiday - mostly, he says, because of the prospect of crowded airports - prompted a new adventure: taking an overnight sleeper train.

Standing in the ticket line at Washington's marble-plated Union Station, the family prepares for a 12-hour journey to Chicago.

Four-year-old Ravi nuzzles up to 10-week-old Kiran, who's gurgling happily amid a crush of passersby. Ravi announces excitedly, "We're going on a train."

Describing their sleeper-car accommodations, Tilman says, "It's definitely upscale" - complete with shower and toilet. To which his wife cocks an eyebrow, and laughs skeptically, "We're the crazy ones."

At least they're not alone. Amtrak is expecting its biggest holiday ridership ever - and has added 15 percent more space on its trains.

Greyhound, too, has seen a spike in long-distance bus ticket sales.

In the end, whatever mode they choose, many people are traveling - perhaps a hint that modern Americans still possess at least a smidgen of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" defiance. As one volunteer at the Exploris Museum in Raleigh, N.C., puts it: "I'd be mad if someone in my family" stayed out of the skies because of fear. "I'm not going to let some guy in Afghanistan tell me how to run my life."

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.

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