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Record numbers — and wet weather — expected for holiday travel

The weather all over the country has been frightful — and as Christmas ushers in the the busy winter season, South Florida hoteliers and tourism boosters couldn’t be happier.

“When it snows in October, that spikes our demand,” said Christoper Gould, general manager of the Atlantic Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Gould is expecting the 124-room beachfront property to sell out between Christmas Eve and Jan. 2 at the highest rates the hotel has drawn in three years.

Across the country, travel is expected to reach record highs, according to a forecast from AAA. Between Saturday and Jan. 1, 94.5 million Americans are expected to travel 50 or more miles from home.

Even though travel numbers for earlier holidays this year were fairly stagnant, Jessica Brady, spokeswoman for AAA, The Auto Club Group, said people seem unwilling to give up their end-of-year holidays. 2013 is the fifth year in a row that Christmas and New Year’s travel has increased, she said.

“This is the main holiday where people want to be with their family and friends,” Brady said.

That is, if people can get to family and friends.

AccuWeather is predicting storms on Friday that could bring rain and fog to areas including Boston and New York. While those storms will hit the eastern U.S., another batch of storms is expected to form in Texas on Saturday. Those should produce thunderstorms and heavy rain that will eventually hit the airline hubs of Atlanta and Charlotte and reach the Northeast by Sunday afternoon.

“If you get a plane canceled Sunday, I don’t know what your chances are of getting out Monday,” said AccuWeather chief digital officer Steve Smith.

By the time the storms pass, temperatures should settle around their seasonal norm, which means the low 40s for New York. The warmer weather, rain and eventual above-freezing temperatures are likely to wipe out the snow that has blanketed many cities of late.

“It’ll be a brown Christmas for the major East Coast cities,” Smith said.

South Florida, on the other hand, can expect a chance of showers, temperatures near 80, and lots of traffic at the airports.

“Whenever those reports start coming in of wintry snow, it almost has an immediate impact in terms of incremental demand,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It still is a very, very powerful driver of business. When they’ve got it bad, we’ve got it good, and that translates to bookings.”

Miami International Airport expects 2.1 million passengers to pass through its gates between Saturday and Jan. 6, a 1.3 percent increase over the previous year. At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, projections call for more than 1.25 million passengers between Saturday and Jan. 5.

Tourism officials from both counties expect the Jan. 3 Orange Bowl match-up between Ohio State and Clemson to provide a bump for the weekend after New Year’s.

Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, said hoteliers in Broward expect a 2 to 3 percent increase in holiday-week business between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.

“When the holiday comes midweek, people get the chance to have weekends on both ends of their stay,” she said. “It tends to lengthen the stay.”

Hotels in the Florida Keys are nearly 100 percent booked for the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day; Key West is especially busy, with four different ball drops on New Year’s.

In Miami-Dade, hotels are expecting to be busier for New Year’s than for Christmas — a difference reflected in their rates.

That means locals might treat themselves to a relative bargain of a holiday getaway: Between Dec. 23 and 26, several Expedia-rated four-star hotels on South Beach or in downtown Miami are available for less than $200 a night.

The Conrad Miami, an upscale hotel on Brickell with rooms still available for $249 a night over Christmas, is even offering nightly snowfall — minus the freezing weather — on the 25th floor for visitors.

“It is a huge Christmas touch,” said general manager Stephane Mercier.

The snow (actually a substance closer to soap) continues falling every night in The Bar @ LvL25 through the end of the year, when the hotel is full.

While the midweek holiday is a bonus for travelers who can take the entire week and combine both weekends into a vacation, for those with fewer days off the timing can present a challenge, said Jeff Lehman, chair of the Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority.

The Betsy-South Beach, where Lehman is general manager, still has rooms on Christmas night for $345. But by the next day, rates shoot up to $800-$1,800, and by New Year’s Eve only seven rooms are left — at prices that top out at $2,200.

“The moment Christmas is over, the demand is through the roof,” Lehman said. “Which is naturally what happens.”