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COVID drove families apart for Thanksgiving. They won't let inflation do the same.

Airfare may be up nearly 43% from last year and gas prices are again on the rise, but millions of Americans are still planning to travel to be with family and friends next week for Thanksgiving.

About 54.6 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home this Thanksgiving, according to an AAA report released on Tuesday. Travel for the holiday season is up 1.5% compared to last year, bringing travel volume back to 98% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the report.

This year is on track to be the third-busiest travel season the agency has seen for Thanksgiving in over two decades.

After years of downsized dinners and Zoomsgivings, families are itching to reunite, making sacrifices in other parts of their budgets to afford trips.

John Williams, a retired elementary school teacher, can't wait for his grandchildren to jump into arms. Williams, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, has been saving since August to spend the holiday with his daughter and grandchildren, who live about 500 miles away in Los Angeles.

COVID had kept Williams and his wife, Ann, from making the annual trip in 2020, and they celebrated over Zoom.

"We felt that there was a void created," he said, and they were both happy when the pandemic cloud lifted enough last November to renew their tradition.

Since then, though, inflation has gripped the country and most of the world, with prices rising at their fastest pace in decades. But Williams said he won't let that be the reason for another Thanksgiving spent apart. Even after hearing horror stories of gas prices of being $7 per gallon in California, he and Ann, a retired orchestra teacher, said they would pay whatever it takes.

"Increased prices was not going to interfere with something much more important," said Williams.

So, to save up for the nine-hour drive, Williams made some dramatic changes to how he buys food and necessities.

Instead of going to just one store for all of his groceries, he visits multiple outlets to hunt for the best deals. He doesn't consider the extra trips too big a burden.

"We are retired, so if we have to go to two or three stores versus one, it's not awful," said Williams.

Plus, he doesn't like to deprive his grandchildren – three of whom live in Tucson – of small things like going for an ice cream cone, he said.

"You are just more mindful of how much things cost," said Williams.

Going to great lengths to finally be together

Emily Anderson, 32, typically stays in town for Thanksgiving, but this year, she and her husband and their two young sons will make a 14-hour drive up to Pennsylvania from Georgia to spend the holiday with her grandparents.

It wasn't an easy call.

Inflation has affected everything, said Anderson. She's spent less on groceries and used less gas – walking down the street to restaurants instead of driving across town to her favorite one. But she was determined to make the trip.

"It's not necessarily the best financial decision, but my grandfather's really not doing well, and I want my sons to have as much time with him as they can," she said. "It's really important to have that time where you can sit in their lap or go for a walk with them. It's not really the same doing video calls."

While they typically break the drive up into two days, they can't cover the cost of a hotel this year and will drive straight through. And they'll pack lunch and snacks instead of eating out at rest stops.

Anderson said she's particularly looking forward to visiting the duck pond, which her boys - aged four and two - absolutely love.

"It also kind of feels like this year was a breaking point," she said. "We just can't be physically apart anymore."

Making tough decisions in the face of high costs

But for some, the costs of travel are insurmountable.

Rebecca Vidra, a professor at Duke University who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has been tracking flight prices since May, the month her eldest daughter decided she was going to go to college in California. At that point, a round trip was already shaping up to be more than $600.

"They never dropped," said Vidra about plane ticket prices. "I check almost every day. I'm kind of obsessed."

For Vidra, Thanksgiving has typically featured a heritage-breed turkey and fresh vegetables from the farmers' market as part of an extravagant, local meal. She considered paring down the family meal to help alleviate the cost of a Thanksgiving plane ticket, but ultimately, they couldn't swing the round trip.

"It's heartbreaking," said Vidra.

They'll put any money saved from forgoing the Thanksgiving flight toward a winter break trip back home, she said.

And she's planning to call her daughter in for a yearly tradition.

"We do a gratitude exercise, so she'll be here via FaceTime," Vidra said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.