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Kansas holiday travel forecast: Weather, fuel prices look favorable

Richard Peter fills his tank at a Kwik Shop at 21st and Amidon. Gas prices are dropping, though Wichita still has higher prices than most other Kansas cities.
Richard Peter fills his tank at a Kwik Shop at 21st and Amidon. Gas prices are dropping, though Wichita still has higher prices than most other Kansas cities. The Wichita Eagle

The seasonal drop in gasoline rates has Kansans seeing the sixth-cheapest prices at the pump nationwide, according to AAA’s daily online report for gasoline prices nationwide, www.fuelgaugereport.aaa.com.

As of Wednesday, gas across the state averaged $2.33 per gallon, a substantial decrease over the year’s peak price of $3.56 on June 26.

Prices in Wichita on Wednesday averaged a few pennies cheaper at $2.30 per gallon, AAA Executive Vice President Jim Hanni said.

And the pleasant prices are expected to hang on – or even dip a bit lower – during the upcoming holiday travel season, thanks to a sluggish demand for crude oil globally, abundant supplies and cheaper costs to refine winter fuel blends.

“These low prices are likely to persist, barring an unexpected spikes in global prices for crude oil or declines in domestic (crude oil) production,” Hanni said.

Crude oil is “now approximately 40 percent cheaper than at the start of the year and now about about 50 percent cheaper” when the price of crude oil peaked over the summer, he said.

West Texas Intermediate crude oil, the benchmark for U.S. oil prices, peaked at $107.23 per barrel in mid-June. The price Wednesday was $56.31, a 47.5 percent decrease in six months.

The last time gas prices in Wichita dipped to $2.30 was in October 2008, Hanni said. Statewide, gas prices are the lowest since 2009, he said.

Gasoline per gallon is “40 cents below where were were a month ago and 67 cents below where we were last year at this time,” Hanni said.

Missouri ranked No. 1 for low gas prices, according to AAA’s report, with an average cost of $2.19 per gallon. Oklahoma was second at $2.23 per gallon, followed by Texas at $2.29, Mississippi at $2.30 and South Carolina at $2.31.

The savings “obviously … helps with Christmas shopping. It helps with the budget for any travel,” Hanni said.

“I think people have made up their minds (to travel) no matter what the situation is with the weather or forecasted prices,” but the lower gasoline prices “certainly is a big help.”

Road travel

According to projections from AAA, 8.1 million people from a seven-state area than includes Kansas will travel 50 or more miles from home between Dec. 23 and Jan. 4, a 13-day span known as the year-end holiday travel period.

The number is the largest since 2006, when 7.9 million people hit the roads or airports for Christmastime travel, Hanni said.

Other states used to figure AAA’s projections were Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Of the 8.1 million holiday travelers from the seven-state region, most – roughly 7.5 million – will hit the roads.

The busiest days on the roads likely will be Christmas Eve and the Sunday after New Year’s Day, Hanni said.

Other than visits to family members, popular destinations for Kansans will be Branson, Mo.; Florida, from Orlando to Key West; skiing in Colorado; New York City; Las Vegas; and cities in Hawaii and Texas where Wichita State University’s men’s basketball team and Kansas State University’s football team are scheduled to play, AAA said.

In preparation for holiday travel, Lt. Lin Dehning, spokesman for the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, urged motorists to ensure their vehicles are in good repair and to buckle up before hitting the roads.

“Make sure you have good tires,” Dehning said. “Make sure you get your car checked out as far as the brakes go, and windshield wipers and lights. … And watch the drinking and driving while everyone is making merry.”

Air travel

According to AAA, an estimated 314,000 people to fly to their holiday destinations between Dec. 23 and Jan. 4, accounting for about 3.9 percent of total travelers.

Those travelers are finding that the average discounted round-trip tickets from some budget carriers are about 7 percent lower than a year ago, AAA said in a news release.

Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, which will see a portion of that traffic, is projecting its lightest travel days to be Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, said airport spokeswoman Valerie Wise. On Wednesday she did not have information on which days were expected to be busiest or the total number of people who will utilize the airport this holiday season.

“With the Christmas holiday, travel is more spread out than Thanksgiving,” in part because of when schools start their winter breaks, Wise said.

To increase the chance of smooth travel, Wise suggests passengers check the status of their flights at www.flywichita.com and arrive at Mid-Continent Airport two hours before their scheduled departure so they have enough time to check in and get through the security checkpoint.

Motorists are discouraged from waiting in front of the airport terminal to drop off or pick up passengers. Those needing more than a few minutes should wait for passengers in the cell phone lot – located south of the Park and Ride lot in front of the air cargo building – to avoid tying up traffic, Wise said.

Passengers should plan to remove their shoes and items in their carry-on bags at the airport’s security checkpoint unless their boarding passes have the Transportation Security Administration precheck logo, Wise said. She added that travelers should carry a small snack in case flights get canceled or delayed and should wait to wrap gifts until after arriving at their destinations to help expedite security processes.

“In Wichita, it’s pretty easy but in the larger airports, it can get kind of crazy. There can be long lines and delayed flights,” Wise said. “So pack your patience.”

For more packing and air travel tips, go to Mid-Continent Airport’s website or www.tsa.gov.

Weather

Depsite snow and sleet giving Wichitans a taste of winter Wednesday, the weather should be pleasant and dry, with highs reaching into the 40s, as travelers begin hitting the roads toward their holiday destinations this weekend.

Jerilyn Billings Wright, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita, said the area may see a slight winds and a chance of precipitation as the weekend progresses into Sunday.

A front expected to move into the region on Tuesday may drop more precipitation – rain rather than snow, Billings Wright said – but it likely will stay in eastern Kansas and Missouri.

Highs on Christmas Eve may be 40 degrees, Billings Wright said. Kansans could see more precipitation on Dec. 26 – possibly snow this time – with a front that may move into the area, she said.

“This weekend looks pretty nice, so travel should not be hindered,” Billings Wright said.

But with Christmas still a week away – and given Kansas’ ever-changing weather – she urged travelers to continue checking the forecast as the holiday approaches.

“Any of this can and will likely change,” she said.

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

Helpful websites and phone numbers

Track snow removal in the City of Wichita: www.wichita.gov/snowremoval.

Kansas Department of Transportation road conditions and other travel information: www.kandrive.org or dial 5-1-1 from any phone. You can also call 866-511-KDOT. KDOT is on Twitter at @KDOTHQ.

Kansas Turnpike road travel information: www.ksturnpike.com. For road conditions, dial 5-1-1. Accidents and road conditions are also updated on Twitter at @KansasTurnpike.

To report accidents: Call 911.

City of Wichita road conditions: www.wichway.org.

To reach the Kansas Highway Patrol for assistance or directions, to report problems or accidents or for other information: Dial *47 from a phone. On the turnpike? Dial *582.

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