Thanksgiving travel is not for the meek, and this year is driving that point home — no pun intended. This is the first Thanksgiving holiday week since the Covid-19 pandemic was officially declared over, and people are clearly making the most of it, whether heading to one of the cheapest countries to visit, a great place to have a vacation home, or just your childhood home.
Whether you've already traveled to your destination and have to head home later this week or are gearing yourself up to make that trip, there's plenty to know about. And if you're the one just waiting to receive guests this year, good for you — that's a whole other form of stressors and responsibilities.
The Thanksgiving travel period, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) started last Friday and goes through next Tuesday, November 28. Here's what's happening so far:
'Busiest ever' holiday travel season
The TSA already declared this Thanksgiving period the anticipated "busiest ever" holiday travel season, in a press release last week. Overall, they expect 30 million passengers to be screened by TSA.
But of course, that pertains to people flying to their destinations. What's the situation for drivers?
Well, driving is somewhat better than flying this year... in the sense that AAA anticipates it'll only be the third busiest season, since 2000. The association projected there would be 55.4 million people traveling 50 miles or more over this Thanksgiving holiday travel period, with 49.1 million traveling by auto, it said in a press release last week. That's an overall 2.3% increase over last year. (By the way: the two busier years in AAA's records? 2005 and 2019.)
"Travel demand has been strong all year, and AAA's Thanksgiving forecast reflects that continued desire to get away and spend time with loved ones," Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in the press release.
There's one more interesting facet to AAA's projections: "The number of people traveling by cruise, bus, and train over Thanksgiving is up nearly 11% over last year," per the press release. Twidale pointed to a return to cruising to account for a lot of that big jump.
The worst times to travel during Thanksgiving week
The busiest travel days are upon us, so good luck to you if you haven't left yet. Wednesday is going to be the worst day for those driving, AAA said INRIX, a data reporter, found. Average travel times will go as much as 80% higher than usual, according to AAA. That follows my personal cardinal rule as a New Yorker: don't even try to leave the city after Tuesday of Thanksgiving week.
And for those flying? The busiest travel days, according to TSA, are Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday of this week. Sunday is projected to be the busiest for the TSA.
"We are ready for the anticipated volumes and are working closely with our airline and airport partners to make sure we are prepared for this busy holiday travel season," TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement. "We will also do our best to maintain wait time standards of under 10 minutes for TSA PreCheck lanes and under 30 minutes for standard screening lanes."
Weather outlook for Thanksgiving travel
Now, that's everything the professionals can anticipate in the lead-up to Thanksgiving week. But what about the unanticipated, like weather drama?
For that, let's look to the meteorologists, and they see some trouble brewing.
A cross-country storm is pushing through this week, according to ABC News. It started with rain and snow in the West this past weekend before moving east. Storms caused damage in the South, including Mississippi and Louisiana, Monday, with flash flood and tornado warnings. There is still a risk of tornadoes in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday, per ABC News.
Then, the storm is expected to head on up towards the Northeast — so those traveling the I-95 need to keep an eye out — with rain in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) and New York City by Tuesday evening, including the possibility of flash flooding. It will be at its worst in that area overnight Tuesday into Wednesday morning.
And it doesn't stop there. The storm is expected to continue up the coast towards Boston and New England, where cold temperatures could turn it into a real snowstorm by Wednesday night. In fact, snow is predicted to begin in New England as early as Tuesday night.
All of that is to say: follow your local weather reports and plan accordingly so you can get to your destination safely, even if the "destination" has to change to "eating turkey slices on my couch and FaceTiming my family." Safety is the top priority.
The good news for Thanksgiving travelers
I promised some good news for travelers this week, and there is some: Generally, it's less expensive.
Gas prices have been dropping, including by 25 cents in just the last month. The national average of regular unleaded hit $3.33 per gallon on November 17. That's much better than recent prices.
"Ten states now have sub $3 a gallon averages, and more will join soon," AAA spokesperson Andrew Gross said in a statement. "So savvy drivers will find savings on their way to a turkey dinner this year."
Plus, the average price of rental cars in the U.S. went down a whopping 20% from 2022, according to AAA. Hotels in the U.S. are also cheaper than last year, with the average price of a domestic hotel stay down 12%, according to AAA.
Unfortunately, though, flight prices did not follow the downward trend. Domestic flights are up 5% from last year, per AAA. But, good news for those going further: international flight prices are down almost 6%.
Thanksgiving travel tips
There are still strategies you can take to make your trip as easy as possible.
For those flying, the TSA recommends arriving early and making sure to pack according to what you're actually allowed to bring through security. Of course, you should also make sure you have all appropriate forms of identification, and tools like TSA PreCheck and Clear can save you time on screening lines.
Personally, I also recommend double-checking your tickets to make sure you're planning to go to the right airport, if there are multiple airports in your area. And if someone is picking you up, give them the flight number so they can track it and arrive to get you on time. Meanwhile, if you're the one picking someone up, get familiar with your airport's "waiting lot" location, if there is one, which will save stress if you need to wait an extra 10-15 minutes or more.
If you are planning to drive on Wednesday, AAA says your best bet is to leave in the morning or after 6 pm. Try to avoid driving in the middle of the day, when traffic will get heavy. And if you're heading back on Saturday or Sunday, AAA recommends getting on the road before noon. Traffic will peak on those days from 3-5 pm, they expect. You can check the AAA page for more specific recommendations and projects for individual metro areas.
I, for one, have been scarred by Thanksgiving week traffic trapping me on the approach to the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan, so I prefer using public transportation (trains!) if possible, earlier in the week. I hope you figure out your own special travel recipe, so you can get to your destination in time to make your own special Thanksgiving recipe.
Alexandra Svokos is the senior digital editor of Kiplinger. She holds an MBA from NYU Stern in finance and management and a BA in economics and creative writing from Columbia University. Alexandra has a decade of experience in journalism, specializing in online newsrooms. She previously served as the senior editor of digital for ABC News, where she directed daily news coverage across topics through major events of the early 2020s for the network's website. Before that, she pioneered politics and election coverage for Elite Daily and went on to serve as the senior news editor for that group.
Alexandra was recognized with an "Up & Comer" award at the 2018 Folio: Top Women in Media awards, and she was asked twice by the Nieman Journalism Lab to contribute to their annual journalism predictions feature. She has also been asked to speak on panels and give presentations on the future of media, including by the Center for Communication and Twipe.
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