Storms could dampen holiday travel in Bay Area

Car mechanic Bill Paterson says he can count on 12-hour work days at his Santa Rosa auto shop this week to help ready his customers to join the sea of humanity hitting the highways for the Thanksgiving holiday.

His Petaluma Hill Road lot was full with vehicles dropped off early Monday morning, and the phone kept ringing with calls from more folks hoping for last-minute oil changes and the like.

Each time, it's the same thing: "We need it by Wednesday," the Sebastopol resident and owner of Bill's Automotive owner said.

True to form, Thanksgiving Eve is forecast to be the busiest travel day of the year again this time around, with 5.4 million Californians expected to leave home to spend the holiday with family and friends elsewhere, up 0.6 percent from last year, according to the American Automobile Association, or AAA.

The large majority of them, 4.7 million, will travel by motor vehicle, averaging 887 miles over the four-day weekend, AAA said.

Nationally, 43.6 million are expected to travel over the extended weekend, a slight increase of less than 1 percent from last year despite high gas prices and a slow economic recovery, AAA said.

Those leaving Sonoma County on Wednesday could encounter unstable weather, with the possibility of showers or snow forecast early in the day around much of the state.

But sunshine was forecast for much of the West Coast for Thanksgiving and the reset of the weekend.

Popular destinations for Northern Californians include Tahoe and the Sierra area, Las Vegas and environs — like Bryce and Zion canyons — and San Diego, a favorite spot for families with young children because of its well-known zoo, nearby attractions like Legoland and the beach, said Cynthia Harris, AAA spokeswoman for Northern California.

And it looks like fuel prices - though high — are more accommodating than they were a month ago, AAA said.

Though California can still claim the highest gas prices in the nation, the cost of a gallon of regular unleaded has declined substantially over the last month, falling an average of 89 cents by last week, and AAA predicted prices would continue to drop.

After several years of economic uncertainty, Californians are well-versed in budgeting so they can gather with family and friends to celebrate holidays together," Harris said in a written statement.

Joy Backer, who lives in Eureka but has stayed recently in Sonoma County, where her fiance, a custom builder, is working on a house, is headed out Wednesday to visit family in Flagstaff, Ariz., after stopping in San Jose to get her Volvo tuned up.

It's a 13-hour drive, but she's planning to stay in Flagstaff for several weeks, waiting for fiance Ian Hegedus to get time to join her, probably around Christmas. She snagged a new pair of snowboots for the high desert weather at REI on Monday, with Hegedus, after a mini-holiday at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel in Santa Rosa.

Once she's on the road, "I will be working," Hegedus said with a rueful smile.

True, folks from different lifestyles and professions approach the week differently.

One couple waiting Monday for the Sonoma County Airport Express to San Francisco International Airport was headed to Rome for a week and then a two-week cruise to celebrate a 60th birthday - despite their usual tradition of hosting the family for Thanksgiving and the incumbent guilt of "abandoning year."

Another Santa Rosa resident, Dean Donofrio, has never celebrated Thanksgiving because he's a Jehovah's Witness. But he and his wife are headed to Hawaii mid-way between Thanksgiving and Christmas, "the best time to travel" because of lower rates, he said.

But even though traditions shift and many California public schoolkids are on vacation for the whole week, holiday travel continues to be concentrated in the Wednesday-to-Sunday timeframe, Harris said.

Airport Express supervisor Ken Neese offered a slightly different perspective, however, saying it was Tuesday that was always the heaviest day for his drivers.

The first few buses of the day will be loaded with people heading to airports in San Francisco and Oakland, while those flying into the area will fill the afternoon and evening buses.

"You would think Wednesday, but it always ends up being Tuesday prior to" Thanksgiving, Neese said.

With up to 2 feet of fresh snow in the Lake Tahoe area and many ski resorts already opened by last week, business was quickly picking up Monday at Santa Rosa Ski and Sport, salesman Ian Ferguson said.

"Right now it's firing up," he said. "People are starting to get their skis tuned up, getting ready to go up this week."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan