Not-So-Happy Holiday Travel Season Hits Peak

Mother Nature is disrupting Father Christmas this year.

Elementary school students, some escorted by parents, cross a snowy street en route to school as a blizzard dropped snow over Boulder, Colo., Wednesday Dec. 19, 2012. A storm that has dumped more than a foot of snow in the Rocky Mountains is heading east and is forecast to bring the first major winter storm of the season to the central plains and Midwest.
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The holiday travel season's peak Friday coincides with wind and rain storms that are tangling air and highway traffic for millions of homeward-bound Americans in the Midwest, South, and Southeast.

A fourth of the country's population will hit the road this holiday season, and more than 93 million people total will take trips more than 50 miles from home, according to AAA. Some trekkers will be forced to deal with Winter Storm Draco, as the Weather Channel has dubbed it, which has forced more than 500 cancellations and nearly 4,000 delayed flights through late Friday morning, mostly in the Northeast, according to FlightStats.com.

The severe winter storm has left chaos in its wake since originating in the Pacific Northwest, where it whipped up 100-mile-per-hour winds and buried some areas in 30 inches of snow. On Thursday, it dropped up 20 inches of snow in Wisconsin and surrounding areas and led to more than 600 flight cancellations in the nation's second-busiest airport, Chicago O'Hare International.

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Draco has continued to move eastward, where it has brought its holiday trip-snarling conditions closer to the I-95 corridor and southern New England. The storm's leading edge is bringing high winds and heavy rain to Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston, according to the National Weather Service. The conditions could complicate air travel, but should be passable for the 90 percent of holiday trippers in cars this season. Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania are feeling its effects in the form of snow and sleet that are causing visibility issues and nasty road conditions.

In the South, travellers should take into account a separate cadre of thunderstorms and tornados that flipped cars in Alabama and has forced several states to issue high wind advisories. Flights out of the nation's busiest airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International, were subsequently delayed for several hours.

On top of those weather headaches, the 84 million on road trips will suffer from record high gas prices for this time of year. Since September, prices have dropped by an average of 50 cents, but the estimated average of $3.20-$3.40 a gallon is still a record high for this time of year, according to AAA. Rental car rates have also gone up by nearly 30 percent, from $40 a day to $56 a day on average, according to the association.

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Despite the weather and higher costs, more Americans are travelling, and travelling farther, this season. It is, after all, the most wonderful time of year.

"The year-end holiday season remains the least volatile of all travel holidays as Americans will not let economic conditions or high gas prices dictate if they go home for the holidays or kick off the New Year with a vacation," Robert Darbelnet, president and chief executive of AAA, said in a statement.. "Primary economic indicators all show modest improvement from last year and AAA is projecting an increase in the number of Americans stuffing their stockings with airline tickets and hotel reservations."

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Seth Cline is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at scline@usnews.com.