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Despite a looming East Coast rain storm in the forecast, 98.6 million Americans are expected to travel 50 miles or more during the holiday season, the most since AAA started keeping travel statistics more than a decade ago.

A mix of low gas prices and the potential for an extra-long Christmas weekend are the biggest drivers in pushing projected travel numbers toward record highs.

“This year the calendar is really having a positive effect. The fact that Christmas is on a Thursday offers travelers more flexibility in their plans,” AAA East Central spokeswoman Chelsea Pompeani said.

In AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, about 11.2 million people are expected to travel more than 50 miles, with about 10.1 million of those going by car.

Jared Helfrich, 29, of Overbrook, is among those hitting the road during the holiday period, which AAA counts from Dec. 23 to Jan. 4. He and his wife, Liz, will drive to Cleveland on Saturday to visit her family.

“(My wife) is working Christmas Eve and Friday so we’ll get up first thing on Saturday and go,” Helfrich said. “The low gas prices make it nice. It wouldn’t dictate whether we go or not, but I do notice it. The tolls are significant, though.”

He won’t have to drive through the rain storm that is projected to hit Wednesday, bringing temperatures as high as 62 degrees and powerful winds on Christmas Eve, according to the National Weather Service in Moon. The rain will be heavier east of the mountains.

“It will be very windy. People may want to secure their Christmas decorations (Wednesday) night,” meteorologist Brad Rehak said.

By Christmas Day, temperatures likely will be back in the 30s, dipping below freezing north of the city. The wind will likely dry out most of the roads before they can freeze, Rehak said.

“We should expect winds of 15 to 25 mph with gusts up to 40 mph,” Rehak said.

If the weather won’t cooperate, gas prices will. The national average for a gallon of gasoline is $2.39. In the Pittsburgh area, the average price is $2.74. That’s down from a $3.39 per gallon average at this time last year.

“Gas prices are also a large reason for the large number of travelers,” Pompeani said.

Of the nearly 100 million people traveling, 91 percent will drive and 6 percent will fly. Average roundtrip fares across 40 top domestic routes are down about 7 percent compared with last year, according to AAA.

Allegheny County Airport Authority spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said the airport has seen a Christmas rush since Friday. She said (Wednesday’s) winds likely will not be a factor in delaying flights.

“The day after Christmas will also be very busy,” Jenny said.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or [email protected].

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