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via USA Today

By Alan Levin, USA TODAY

More than half of U.S. residents who wanted to travel during the holidays have significantly cut back their plans or canceled trips altogether because of the fragile economy, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows.

Americans are suffering from high unemployment, income reductions and financial insecurity that continue to undermine the travel business, even as the economy shows tepid signs of recovery, according to economists and poll respondents.

“I crunched the numbers, checked numerous airlines and it just wasn’t a possibility,” said Lisa Emmett-Gagliano, 48, of Mesa, Ariz. Emmett-Gagliano, a single mother on disability, wanted to take her two daughters to Chicago to visit family they hadn’t seen for nine years.

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A survey of 1,025 people, conducted Dec. 11 through Sunday, found that 35% said they had intended to travel more than 100 miles from home during the holidays. However, about one-third of the would-be travelers said the economy forced them to abandon plans, leaving only 23% who will actually take trips. And more than a third of those said they were cutting back “significantly” on the cost of their trip.

David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor’s, said the poll’s findings are consistent with broad data on the sputtering economy. The recession shows signs of lifting, but travel tends to rebound more slowly than other sectors, Wyss said.

“People are traveling less,” he said. “They are driving instead of flying. Even when the economy gets a little better, it takes awhile for them to start taking those trips.”

Other travel indicators also show a steep drop since 2007, the most recent holiday season bolstered by a strong economy.

INRIX, a traffic-monitoring firm, recorded a 30% drop in roadway congestion from 2007 to 2008, spokesman Jim Bak said. Congestion began to tick upward in mid-2009, but the firm is forecasting slightly less traffic this season compared with last year’s.

The Air Transport Association, which represents large airlines, is forecasting a 2.5% decline in holiday air travelers this year during a three-week span that started Thursday.

The drop in holiday travel has one silver lining: It lowers the chances of congestion and delays on highways and in airports. Airline delays have dropped significantly this year as flights have fallen, though there is always a danger that winter storms will trigger massive holiday gridlock.

Several of the people surveyed in the poll who agreed to be interviewed said they had either lost jobs or were living on fixed incomes.

Meg Goldcamp, 55, of Cocoa Beach, Fla., lost her job as an environmental control worker for a missile launch firm last October. As a result, she jettisoned plans to drive to see family in Washington, D.C. She is headed instead to a nearby aunt’s house in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Gregory Broughton, 56, of Philadelphia, had hoped to visit family in Virginia. “Because of finances and gas prices and things of that nature, I decided not to,” said Broughton, who lives on Social Security disability.