WASHINGTON -- Christmas shoppers may be spending less on gifts, but they won't let a sliding economy, higher gas prices or the hassle of holiday travel keep them from going home.
An estimated 34.8 million Americans will still fly, drive or take the train to visit out-of-town family and friends over the next two weeks, about the same number as last year.
"The thing that drives people to be with family members over Christmas is that it provides a point of stability in a world that is not very stable," said Barbara Allen, chairman of the American Studies Department at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.
"It's kind of ironic that you have to travel in order to retain some semblance of stability in your life," Ms. Allen said, but such journeys have become the most emotional and deeply rooted holiday tradition.
Families find that it's easier to save money by buying fewer and less expensive gifts, contributing less to charity or cooking less lavish dishes for the annual office party than to cancel a holiday trip.
Wallace Denton, a professor of family therapy at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., calls that desire to be together at Christmas "a deep primeval urge . . . that's perhaps as powerful as the pull which brings the birds back north in the spring.
"So we're willing to go to a great deal of expense and sacrifice to get to our home," Mr. Denton said.
Gas prices are still about 27 percent higher than they were before the Persian Gulf crisis broke out in August. Yet a poll by the American Automobile Association projected that 25.7 million Americans will travel at least 100 miles from home by car this holiday season, up from about 25.5 million in 1989.
The AAA said that another 9.1 million will travel by plane and train -- about the same number as last year, according to the airlines and Amtrak.
The Air Transport Association expects 1.6 million passengers to fly today and tomorrow, making them two of the three busiest days of the year at the nation's airports. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the third day.
That's daunting news for fliers, since the last three Decembers are among the airlines' six all-time worst months for on-time performance, with three out of every 10 flights landing late.