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Thanksgiving travel will be crowded, but not as chaotic as the summer

What to know about the busiest airports, high-traffic days and destinations for last-minute trips

(Washington Post illustration)

A perfectly roasted turkey, grandma’s stuffing and a heaping side of travel chaos: Busy airports and expensive flights have become an annual Thanksgiving tradition, and this year will be no exception.

With many families reuniting for the first time since the pandemic began, nearly 55 million Americans are expected to travel more than 50 miles from home for the holiday this year, according to AAA. About 4.5 million plan to fly, an increase of nearly 8 percent from 2021.

This Thanksgiving is expected to be the “biggest air travel period since the start of covid,” said Peer Bueller, the chief financial officer at travel booking website Kayak.

“We’re inching really close to pre-pandemic levels,” especially for international travel, Bueller said.

After the chaos of summer travel this year, many travelers remain wary that staffing issues and extreme weather might derail their plans. Here’s what to know ahead of a busy travel week.

The busiest days at airports

Airlines have sold roughly 25 million seats departing from U.S. airports from the Sunday before Thanksgiving to the Sunday after, about 6 percent more capacity than 2019, according to Hayley Berg, lead economist at the travel booking app Hopper.

The largest surge of travelers will come to airports on Wednesday and Sunday, especially in the mornings, according to Berg. Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver airports are expected to be the nation’s busiest all week long, with crowds peaking in the mornings. Las Vegas, Phoenix and New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport will also be among the busiest but will see their largest crowds in the evenings, Berg said.

Your guide to surviving airport chaos

If you’re traveling during one of those peak times, expect long lines at security and have backup options in case your plans fall through, Berg said. “If you’re really worried, a lot of airlines are offering $0 changes to try to change your flight to earlier in the day or the day before,” she said.

The Transportation Security Administration will be “fully staffed” for the holiday period, with 20 million passengers expected to pass through checkpoints between Nov. 18 and Nov. 27, according to spokesperson Lisa Farbstein.

Farbstein recommends passengers arrive at the airport two hours early for a domestic flight and “pack some of that all-important patience.” If you’re traveling with Thanksgiving foods, be sure to place them in the right bag: solid foods like pie can go in a carry on, but liquids like wine and gravy must be checked.

“If you can spill it, spread it, spray it, pump it or pour it, then please pack it in a checked bag,” Farbstein said in an email.

The holiday foods you can and can’t bring in a carry-on, according to TSA

The days with peak Thanksgiving traffic

Travelers looking to avoid crowded airports may choose to hit the road, but expect significant congestion there, too.

Traffic is expected to peak Wednesday afternoon, especially in major metropolitan areas like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, according to INRIX, a transportation analytics firm.

If you need to travel Wednesday, leave before 8 a.m. or after 8 p.m. On Thanksgiving Day, try to drive before 11 a.m. or after 6 p.m., when traffic will be lightest, according to INRIX. For the return trip, avoid driving between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Gas prices have fallen 11 cents in the last week to $3.66 per gallon on average nationally as of Monday, according to AAA. While far below summer peaks of over $5 a gallon, it will still be the most expensive Thanksgiving for gas prices since AAA started tracking rates in 2000.

Drivers in the Mid-Atlantic region can find some relief at the gas station chain Sheetz, which has reduced its Unleaded 88 fuel to $1.99 a gallon for Thanksgiving week. Navigation apps like Waze and Google Maps now feature gas prices along your route, and Google Maps offers an eco-friendly routing option to find the most fuel-efficient route to your destination.

The best times to drive for Thanksgiving

Expect disruptions, but not as many as summer

Passengers who encountered delays, cancellations, lost bags and other travel disruptions this summer should expect some relief during Thanksgiving, according to experts.

Bueller said he expects disruptions during Thanksgiving to be “much less significant” than the summer, when factors like staffing and weather “blindsided” the industry.

“Thanksgiving is such a time-bound, well-defined travel period, and airlines have been able to prepare for that one much better than this summer,” he said.

Your canceled-flight emergency kit

Airlines say they have been hiring aggressively to deal with staffing shortages and adjusting schedules to improve reliability. Major U.S. carriers completed 99.3 percent of their flights in September and October, with 83 percent arriving on time, excluding those impacted by Hurricane Ian, according to the trade group Airlines for America.

Berg said airlines have been “very conservative” in scheduling for the remainder of 2022 to avoid overextending their fleets and staffing, which should allow them to fly the routes they planned.

“My expectation is that we’ll only see run-of-the-mill disruption, so think late tropical storms, blizzards, ice, snow — the more normal weather-based and every once in a while some equipment-based delays,” Berg said. Hopper expects the worst airports for delays to be Newark, Dallas Love Field and Miami.

Disruption remains top of mind for many air travelers, and Berg said about one-in-five customers are opting to buy Hopper’s Flight Disruption Guarantee, which allows for instant free rebooking in case of a flight disruption.

Storms could slow your return trip

In another relief to travelers, weather across most of the country is expected to be dry and mild on Wednesday, the busiest travel day, The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang reports.

Return travel could be more tricky. A storm system may bring rain and snow to the Northeast between Friday and the weekend, but meteorologists remain unsure of its intensity, so keep an eye on the forecast.

The South and Tennessee Valley are likely to see warm temperatures with some intermittent showers through the weekend. Rain is possible across most of Texas on Friday.

The Plains, Upper Midwest and Great Lakes, meanwhile, are expected to remain mostly dry and clear. The West should be mild and dry, with some rain possible in the Pacific Northwest.

Traveling? Here’s your region-by-region Thanksgiving forecast.

Last-minute deals on flights and hotels

The average Thanksgiving flight ticket was averaging around $380 round trip as of Thursday, with the price increasing $15 or more per day until the holiday, according to Berg.

“If you have not booked your Thanksgiving travel, you should book it today — right now — because prices are only going to increase from here,” Berg said.

Holiday travel prices are climbing high. Here’s how to save money.

Few deals remain, but if you’re looking for a last-minute getaway, flights to Atlanta are averaging around $100 and warm-weather destinations like Cancún, Mexico and Puerto Rico are around $400, she said. Travelers might also be able to score a cheap last-minute flight to Las Vegas and Nashville, where prices are averaging $321 and $345, respectively, according to Kayak.

On the hotel side, travelers might actually be able to benefit from waiting to book until the day they arrive, when hotels drop their rates as much as 25 percent to compete for the last-minute bookings, Berg noted. These deals are usually found in major cities with large hotel inventories, except for New York (because of its Thanksgiving parade) and leisure destinations like Miami.

“Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver — pretty much any city that has a lot of hotel options, you’re going to see last minute deals,” Berg said.

It’s cheaper to travel early next year

Your money will go much further if you sit out holiday travel and book a trip for early in 2023.

Hopper, along with 75 airline and hotel partners, will host its annual Travel Deal Tuesday sale on Nov. 29, which will see 50 percent more deals than the average day, according to the company. On that day, average domestic airfare will be about $50 cheaper and international flights will drop by $160, and Hopper adds additional promotional discounts, Berg said.

Travelers staying home for the holidays should consider booking their travel for mid-January, when domestic flights will be 28 percent cheaper and international flights will be 25 percent cheaper, according to Kayak.

“Those are very significant step downs that are worth waiting for,” Bueller said.

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