Buckle Up: AAA predicts Thanksgiving travel to rebound almost to pre-pandemic levels

More than 53.4 million people expected to travel, the highest single-year increase since 2005

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AAA/WTVQ) – Airports and roads may seem jam-packed this year as AAA predicts 53.4 million people to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, up 13% from 2020. This brings travel volumes within 5% of pre-pandemic levels in 2019, with air travel almost completely recovering from its dramatic fall during the pandemic, up 80% over last year. As restrictions continue to lift and consumer confidence builds, AAA urges travelers to be proactive when making their travel plans this holiday season.

“This Thanksgiving, travel will look a lot different than last year,” said Lori Weaver Hawkins, public and government affairs manager, AAA Blue Grass. “Now that the borders are open and new health and safety guidelines are in place, travel is once again high on the list for Americans who are ready to reunite with their loved ones for the holiday.”

With 6.4 million more people traveling this Thanksgiving coupled with the recent opening of the U.S. borders to fully vaccinated international travelers—people should prepare for roads and airports to be noticeably more crowded.

2021 Thanksgiving Holiday Travelers

Total

Automobile

Air

Other

(Bus, Train, Cruise)

2021 (Forecast)

53.4M

48.3M

4.2M

1M

2020 (Actual)

47.1M

44.5M

2.3M

281,000

2019 (Actual)

56M

49.9M

4.6M

1.5M

Change (2019 to 2021)

−5%

−3%

−9%

−31%

Change (2020 to 2021)

+13%

+8%

+80%

+262%

“International travel re-opening will allow people to reconnect with friends and family and explore new places, while also giving a much-needed boost to the economy,” continued Weaver Hawkins. “But it also means airports will be busier than we’ve seen, so travelers must plan for longer lines and extra time for TSA checks.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released its recommendations for holiday gatherings and related travel, saying that the best way to minimize COVID-19 risk is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible. However, everyone’s situation is unique and therefore, AAA urges anyone considering gathering or traveling for Thanksgiving to consult CDC guidance before finalizing holiday plans.

Navigating the New Travel Landscape
This year’s forecast marks the highest single-year increase in Thanksgiving travelers since 2005, bringing travel volumes close to pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Despite gas costing over a dollar more per gallon than this time last year, 90% of people plan to travel by car as their preferred mode of travel. Although the car is still the most popular choice for travelers, a greater share will opt to travel by air and other modes such as bus, train or cruise this year. Whether you plan to do so by car or plane, it’s important to know how to navigate the new travel landscape to avoid unnecessary stress and challenges on the way to your Thanksgiving destination.

Be Proactive. Book flights, car rentals, accommodations and other activities as early as possible. Prices are not going down and are still somewhat impacted by the limited capacity of flights and staffing challenges faced by many industries. Consider working with a travel advisor who can make any last-minute changes to travel plans, explore travel insurance options and help plan a trip that meets your needs and comfort level this holiday season.

  • Air—Even with air travel seeing a boost this year, AAA finds that the average lowest airfare is 27.3% less than last year coming in at $132. Tuesday and Wednesday are still the most expensive and heaviest travel days with Monday being the lightest and least expensive. Those wanting to book last minute travel will find the best fares about two weeks before Thanksgiving but keep in mind availability may be limited.
  • Hotels—Mid-range hotel rates have increased about 39%, with average nightly rates ranging between $137 and $172 for AAA Approved Hotels.
  • Car Rentals—Daily car rental rates have increased 4% compared to last Thanksgiving at $98. Over the summer, consumers experienced high costs and limited availability of rental cars in some markets due to the semi-conductor chip shortage impacting automakers. While this shortage has subsided, it could return as the holidays near.

Be Patient. The roads and airports will be busy so plan ahead.

  • Arrive at the airport early so you’ll have plenty of time to get through longer TSA lines and other travel checkpoints. For domestic travel, AAA suggests 2 hours ahead of departure time and 3 hours for international.
  • Consider booking a flight during non-peak travel periods to cut down on wait times.
  • Hit the road when there’s less traffic and allow for extra time when traveling to your destination.

Be Prepared. For the 48.3 million Americans hitting the road, make sure you and your vehicle are ready for the trip ahead as AAA expects to respond to over 400,000 calls for help over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Before any long trip, AAA suggests getting an inspection to check key components like the battery, fuel system, tires, brakes and fluid levels. However, if your vehicle has been sitting idle these systems are particularly vulnerable to deteriorating especially without proper care or maintenance.

Travelers Headed to Big Cities and Beaches This Thanksgiving
AAA Travel continues to see a strong recovery that began over the summer and will last into the holiday season. AAA booking data reveals that big cities and tropical destinations are topping travelers’ list this Thanksgiving both domestically and abroad:

2021 Top Thanksgiving Destinations

U.S Destinations International Destinations
Orlando, FL Cancun, Mexico
Anaheim, CA Montego Bay, Jamaica
Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX Aruba
Phoenix, AZ Los Cabos, Mexico
Honolulu, HI Nassau, Bahamas
Kahului, Maui, HI St. Lucia, West Indies
Atlanta, GA Dublin, Ireland
Tampa, FL (tie) Tel Aviv, Israel and Calgary, Canada
Ft. Lauderdale, FL Paris, France

INRIX, in collaboration with AAA, predicts drivers will experience the worst congestion heading into the holiday weekend as commuters leave work early and mix with holiday travelers. Major metro areas across the U.S. could see more than double the delays versus typical drive times, with drivers in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and New York City likely to experience more than three times the delays.

“Thanksgiving is one of the busiest holidays for road trips and this year will be no different even during the pandemic,” says Bob Pishue, Transportation Analyst, INRIX. “Drivers around major metros must be prepared for significant delays, especially Wednesday afternoon. Knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic.”

Worst Corridors and Times to Travel
Source: INRIX

Metro Area Corridor Peak Congestion % Over Normal

Atlanta

I-85 S, Clairmont Rd to MLK Dr

Wednesday, 1:30 – 3:30PM

340%

Boston

I-93 N, Quincy Market to MA-28

Wednesday, 1:00 – 3:00PM

240%

Chicago

I-290 W, Morgan St to Wolfe Rd

Wednesday, 2:45 – 4:45PM

329%

Detroit

I-96 W, 6 Mile Rd to Walled Lake

Wednesday, 2:00 – 4:00PM

211%

Houston

I-10 W, Sjolander Rd to TX-330

Wednesday, 3:15 – 5:15PM

344%

Los Angeles

I-5 S, Colorado St to Florence Ave

Wednesday, 3:45 – 5:45PM

385%

New York

I-495 E, Borden Ave to Little Neck Pkwy

Wednesday, 2:30 – 4:30PM

482%

San Francisco

I-80 E, I-580 to San Pablo Dam Rd

Wednesday, 4:00 – 6:00PM

278%

Seattle

I-5 S, WA-18 to WA-7

Wednesday, 4:00 – 6:00PM

257%

Washington DC

I-95 S, I-395 to VA-123

Wednesday, 2:00 – 4:00PM

230%

Daily Worst and Best Times to Travel
Source: INRIX

Day

Worst Time

Best Time

Wednesday 12:00 – 8:00PM After 9:00PM
Thursday 12:00 – 3:00PM Before 11:00AM
Friday 1:00 – 4:00PM Before 11:00AM
Saturday 2:00 – 7:00PM Before 12:00PM
Sunday 1:00 – 7:00PM Before 12:00PM

AAA notes that the actual number of holiday travelers could fluctuate as we approach Thanksgiving. If there is an increase in reported COVID-19 cases, some people may decide to stay home, while others may note the progress in vaccinations and make last-minute decisions to travel. AAA recommends working with a travel advisor who can help you plan a vacation that meets your needs and comfort level this holiday season. To get started and to learn more, visit AAA.com/Travel.

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