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.
Weather also upset some travel plans. Dense fog in the Chicago area contributed to the cancellation of nearly 200 flights at the city's two airports Wednesday morning, according to flightstats.com. More than 800 other flights were delayed at O'Hare and Midway.
That meant Paul Griffin, 50, had to wait a little longer to reunite with his son, Ryan, an Arizona State University freshman flying into O'Hare on a cheap ticket his father discovered after a month of sifting through deals on websites.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him," Griffin said. "I haven't seen him since August. He's a little homesick."
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.
About 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 of years of healthy post-recession growth, this year's numbers suggest 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 planned to drive 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.
Aided by smartphone apps, social media and other technology, consumers are getting better at sniffing out deals and realize 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.
That's a necessity for many, given that airfare is up 9 percent from Thanksgiving last year, bumping the average domestic roundtrip to $386, according to Travelocity.
Some with large families say that means flying would break the bank, so they are hitting the road.
Linne Katz, 46, and her five children were among them, leaving their home in Haledon, N.J., at 1 a.m. Wednesday in hopes of getting to her father's home in Tennessee while the sun was still up. But driving has some downsides, she said.
"My oldest keeps having to go the bathroom. ... I think he's getting carsick," Katz said, as she stopped to take pictures of her children under the "Virginia Welcomes You" sign at an I-66 rest stop near the Manassas National Battlefield.
Others said they haven't changed their habits, but they're not feeling good about them.
"I'm not cutting back in any identifiable place, but you feel guilty about every other dollar," said Chad Werner, a 38-year-old finance attorney who was munching on a pastry in the atrium of Atlanta's airport while waiting for his flight to Albuquerque, N.M. "I'm also buying a house right now, so I'm in that phase of hemorrhaging money anyway. So maybe my mindset is different."