"It's too expensive," said Benita Hall, 24, a nurse's aide who can't afford to travel from Cincinnati to Atlanta to see her mother and siblings. "It's depressing because you want to be with your family for the holidays."
Nearly 38 million people are expected to take trips this year, slightly more than last year but 20 million fewer than in 2005 when the economy was better, according to AAA auto club. Air travel is expected to drop 6.7 percent this holiday compared with last year, AAA said.
While shopping for food for her holiday meal, Spring Clarke of Lubbock, Texas, said she couldn't afford to travel to Austin to be with family this Thanksgiving. Gas for the 740-mile road trip would take a chunk of change she can't spare.
"A hundred and sixty dollars is a phone bill, it's most of our electric bill," Clarke noted. "I'm not going home because of the economy. Can't do it."
Among those who are traveling, many are opting for cheaper alternatives to flying amid a sour economy that is still hitting household budgets hard.
Curt Label of Richmond, Maine, loaded his wife and two kids into their truck at 4 a.m. to start their 600-mile journey to his sister's home in Lorton, Va.
"To fly, the cost is probably $1,200," Label said as his family was stopped at a service plaza along the New Jersey Turnpike. "We're driving for $200."
Most people have calculated that travel by car often makes the most financial sense, said Alan Pisarski, a leading transportation analyst. About 33 million people are expected to travel by car this Thanksgiving, according to AAA.
Gregory Hudson was going to head to his father's place in Greenville, Miss. until he considered travel costs. The 51-year-old hotel doorman said he'll roast a turkey for a few friends and family at his own home in Chicago instead.
"The Thanksgiving spirit's there," Hudson said. "But with the food so expensive we'll be cutting back on the size of the turkey and trimmings."
In Louisiana, Pearl Miller also was scaling back the size of her Thanksgiving dinner, leaving a New Orleans grocery store carrying only an aluminum roasting pan and one bag of canned goods.
"Usually more family comes from all over, but this year we're only doing Christmas," she said. "Money is just too tight."
Miller cleans houses for a living, but lost two of her customers in the last year. Last week she bought a turkey, which she planned to cook Thursday for her daughter and three grandchildren.
"Turkey is a good bargain. It lasts with all the leftovers," Miller said.
In Tennessee, retail security officer Mike Smith said he had to stay in Chattanooga and spend the holiday weekend working two jobs. He would normally travel with his wife and their 16-year-old son to Indiana to see his mother and a sister.
Mariangela Ruiz had nearly given up on the idea of spending the holiday with her family.
But she decided she could afford the $750 roundtrip ticket from Lima, Peru, to Miami after a friend agreed to pick her up and drive her two hours to Naples, Fla.
Ruiz, who was at the Miami airport Wednesday, said tickets were too expensive to fly directly to Naples, even though her employer would cover half of the trip because she would spend some time working. "I'd rather pay someone to pick me up and pay their gas than have to pay $200 more," she said.
Airlines had been depending on holiday travelers more than usual because travel has been so weak the rest of the year, said analyst Hunter Keay.
Train ridership was predicted to get a holiday boost, with Amtrak expecting Wednesday to be its busiest travel day of the year. Amtrak said its Thanksgiving eve ridership could reach 125,000 passengers, up from approximately 74,000 on a typical Wednesday.
Emily Jacobs, 26, said she and her sister, Katie, decided to take the train from New York City to Atlantic City, N.J., after weighing "traffic on the roads, getting out of the city, and then the New Jersey Turnpike ... might as well bypass all that."
The cost of flying was another deterrent, Jacobs said, since "ticket prices for planes were insane" already and the surcharges for holiday airfare were even more discouraging.
At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Manu Maile was checking to make sure passengers followed American Airlines' limits for carryon luggage. Maile, whose company, Prospect Airport Services, was hired by American Airlines to do the checking, said more people were trying to sneak an extra bag on board this year.
She said crowds were smaller and less frenzied than last Thanksgiving.
"Last year we had people fighting at the checkpoint," Maile said. "They were screaming at the (Transportation Security Administration.) They were getting mad over waiting in line."