Technological advances to make holiday travel smoother

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Washington traffic, weather, road and pass updates

Oregon traffic and road updates

Winter travel tips

This year’s holiday travelers will spend more for gasoline than they did a year ago — but less than in the high-priced spring.

Those headed into the skies for the holidays will see more crowds at Portland International Airport — but fewer than in the pre-recession peak days of 2007.

And those who hop on the Amtrak Cascades to Seattle or that other Vancouver will have more company than ever.

No matter the mode of travel, this season’s journey should be eased thanks to the steady advance of technology. There are more traffic cameras, websites and phone and smartphone tools flooding information to travelers before and during their journey. Google has even mapped the inside of Portland International Airport, available on Android smart phones.

AAA Oregon/Idaho, which also serves Southwest Washington, reminds motorists not to forget the basics from those fast-fading days of maps in the glove box. “One thing we urge is for people to people to be careful and bring a paper map,” said Marie Dodds, AAA Oregon/Idaho spokeswoman. She warns against a blind trust in technology, especially if a Global Positioning System’s “quickest route” option sends you down a secondary road on a dark, cold night.

“Use common sense and look on a map at your entire route,” Dodds said.

Increase expected

Nationally, AAA projects 91.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the year-end holidays, an increase of 1.4 percent from a year ago. That’s the second-highest travel volume of the past decade, representing one-third of Americans, Dodds said. Over 80 percent of that travel will be by automobile, she said.

“We are not fully recovered, but we’re on the way,” Dodds noted. “We think people are ready to travel again, mostly because of pent-up demand.”

The seesaw in gas prices invites comparisons that make this month’s price levels look either good or bad,

depending on whether you’re comparing to last month or last year. The cost of a gallon or regular peaked in May at $3.98 a gallon both nationally and locally, and average prices have generally dropped over the course of the year. The average price per gallon in Vancouver was $3.44 on Tuesday, down from $3.73 a month ago but still higher than last December’s $3.12 per gallon.

Air travel at PDX is also showing signs of a small bounce, though it remains below record levels, said Steve Johnson, spokesman for the Port of Portland, which operates the airport. In 2007, the peak travel year at PDX, flights out of Portland attracted just over 14.6 million passengers, Johnson said. Last year’s count from PDX was 13.2 million passengers, and the Port of Portland projects a 3 percent passenger increase for the full year, with just a 1 percent rise in Christmas season travel, he said.

Nationally and in the Pacific region, however, AAA is projecting a nearly 10 percent drop in leisure air travelers during the holiday season. The travel club said that airfares are expected to run about 21 percent higher than a year ago, with average fares running the highest in the past five years.

The Amtrak Cascades service, operating between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., is a tiny but growing segment of the travel market. In 2010, Amtrak Cascades ridership rose to a 16-year high of 838,251, a 10 percent increase from 2009. Mudslides that closed tracks in the spring reduced ridership in this year’s first quarter, but month-over-month reports this fall are again breaking ridership records. The service is partially funded by the state of Washington.

Laura Kingman, Washington state Department of Transportation’s rail marketing and communications manager, advises those planning a train trip during the holidays to make reservations early. Amtrak requires three-day advance reservations for its discounted fares for seniors, children, military and groups. Some discounts are available online or by calling 1-800-USA-RAIL and speaking to a customer service representative.

Airport changes

Portland International Airport officials are expecting a smooth holiday season, aided by new full-body scanners that should make for easier, if not necessarily speedier, security checks, The full-body scanners, known in industry terminology as “millimeter wave advanced imaging technology,” are being installed in airports across the nation. Also, PDX has completed improvements to its baggage drop-off system so that passengers can simply leave baggage at the ticket counter, rather than having to move bags to a Transportation Security Administration screening site.

The Port of Portland is now on Twitter, which it will use to communicate major changes in operations or special events, Johnson said. And Google has built an indoor map for Portland International Airport, one of 42 such maps of U.S. airports, to help visitors navigate the terminal. Details are available at http://tnw.co/rSp025.

Also new: shopping, parking, and dining at the airport can earn you travel miles on major airlines through a program called “Thanks again.” Travelers can sign up for the “Thanks Again” program by going to the Port of Portland’s website, http://www.pdx.com, and clicking the “What’s New” section.

PDX expects its peak days to be Dec. 22, 23 and 27, with some 44,000 travelers on each of those days. Port officials offer the usual advice: in peak morning departure hours of 5 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., travelers should arrive at the terminal two hours early — and add another half-hour for international flights. At less busy times, those arrival times can be cut a bit shorter.

Planning a road trip

For the most part, people driving home or away for the holidays can expect a smooth journey. Both Washington and Oregon transportation departments will put construction on hold during the holiday period. But transportation officials in both states urge motorists to be well-prepared for hazards and for winter weather. Tips for Washington winter travel are available at http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/winter.

Both transportation departments offer plenty of tools for checking on traffic and weather conditions in advance or during travel.

Washington state traffic, weather, road and pass information is available at www.wsdot.wa.gov/Traffic. Oregon information is available at http://www.tripcheck.com.

Motorists also can call 511 in either state for real-time traffic, incident and closure information. Radio advisories are available on 530 AM and 1610 AM.