It's not just tight family finances making travel tough. Airlines struggling to save on jet fuel and other expenses have cut the number of flights, leading to a jump in airfares. Those hitting the roads face high gas prices and rising tolls. Now, with talk of the nation sliding off a "fiscal cliff" come January, many travelers said they're accepting that sacrifices for pricy holiday journeys have become the norm.
"You become immune to it, I guess," said Chris Zukowski, a 43-year-old locomotive engineer from the Chicago suburb of Huntley, as he hugged his wife and three children goodbye at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and lamented he could not afford to join them on the holiday trip to New Jersey.
"You have to cut back on things just to make sure that you can afford to do stuff like this, so they can go visit grandma," he said, referring to his son and two daughters.
AAA Michigan estimates that more than 1.3 million state residents will travel 50 miles or more during this year's Thanksgiving period, an increase of 7 percent over 2011. They're joining nearly 44 million Americans who are traveling Wednesday through Sunday.
Christopher Hopper of Macomb is one of those taking to the air, rails or roads. In his case, it's the air. The 21-year-old Harvard University student flew home from Boston to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family.
Hopper says his travel experience was "not as bad" as he thought it might be.
Weather was also upsetting some travel plans. Dense fog in the Chicago area forced the cancellation of 90 inbound and outbound flights at the city's two airports Wednesday morning, according to flightstats.com. More than 400 other flights were delayed at O'Hare and Midway.
Visibility was near zero at both airports for several hours, said National Weather Service meteorologist Richard Castro. The fog was expected to lift as the day progressed.
If the nation's travel patterns are any kind of barometer for the state of the economy, the travel forecast for Thanksgiving week suggested a slight upward nudge as people and businesses recover slowly from the 2007-09 recession in which Americans lost nearly a quarter of their wealth.
Around 43.6 million Americans were expected to journey 50 miles or more between Wednesday and Sunday, just a 0.7 percent increase from last year, according to AAA's yearly Thanksgiving travel analysis. After a couple years of healthy post-recession growth, this year's numbers suggested it will take a stronger economy to lift travel demand significantly, the travel organization said.
More people are driving, fewer are flying and the average distance traveled was expected to be nearly 17 percent — or about 120 miles — shorter than a year ago, it said.
As car ownership declines among younger Americans, many of those hitting the road were jumping onto buses.
"I can't afford to own a car; it's too expensive," said 21-year-old web design student Kayla Sprague of Minneapolis.
She was setting off on a 235-mile bus trip to Fargo, N.D. From there, her parents would be driving her the rest of the way to a family gathering in Grand Forks.
Army Pfc. Jordan Clark, of Biloxi, Miss., said he was only able to fly because relatives pooled their resources to buy his ticket.
"It's been difficult. My parents help out, my grandparents," the 20-year-old serviceman said before getting on a flight from Chicago to San Antonio. He wasn't so lucky over the summer, when he had to make the same journey by bus in what became a three-day ordeal thanks to breakdowns. But it saved him more than $200.
Some families are even agreeing to bump Thanksgiving dinner to Saturday, for example, allowing those traveling long distances to get cheaper, off-peak fares and avoid crowds, said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation researcher at DePaul University.
Aided by smartphone apps, social media and other technology, consumers are getting better at sniffing out deals and are realizing they need to be flexible with dates and even with which airports they chose when booking, said Courtney Scott, a senior editor at Travelocity.
"I think people are really becoming smarter, more creative travelers and shoppers," Scott said.
For some travelers, the coping mechanism was decidedly less sophisticated: Travel now, worry about the costs later.
"I think it's my personal style to say, 'It's the holidays. Who cares?' And deal with the consequences later," said Olivia Melman, who flew from Chicago to Philadelphia on Tuesday. The 22-year-old, who works in human relations at Citigroup in New York City, said the costs would set her back, but family is a priority.
Having skipped their Thanksgiving trip last year, Nishiya Sivaruban and her husband were able to save enough to take their two children to the Hawaiian island of Kauai on a special holiday journey. They saved about $200 each on airfare by flying out of O'Hare instead of Milwaukee, which is closer to their home in Waukesha, Wis.
She and her husband are originally from Sri Lanka and have family links to the founder of a Hindu temple and monastery on Kauai that they were excited about visiting.
"There's a lot of things we're thankful for so we wanted to go to that temple," she said.