How to deal with record Thanksgiving traffic: When not to drive, what to expect at airports

USA Today Traveling 2 weeks ago

Plan on traveling around Thanksgiving? You're far from alone. 

The American Automobile Association predicts record-breaking numbers on the road and in the air this year. A total of 55.3 million travelers are expected to travel from Wednesday, Nov. 27, through Sunday, Dec. 1 by car, plane, train, bus and cruise ship. That makes for a 1.6 million-person increase from last year, the second-highest since AAA began recording data in 2000.

Steer clear of Wednesday afternoon

The worst time to hit the road is Wednesday afternoon, according to INRIX, a global transportation analytics company that partners with AAA to compile holiday travel data. If you plan on driving in the late afternoon or early evening (5 to 7:30 p.m.) around Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, Boston or Houston, your trip could take up to 3½ times longer than usual. 

The traffic jams start early in San Francisco (2-4 p.m.) and Washington (3-5 p.m.), where trips are expected to take about three times as long as normal. 

“With record levels of travelers, and persistent population growth in the country’s major metropolitan areas, drivers must prepare for major delays,” Trevor Reed, transportation analyst at INRIX, said in a news release. “Although travel times will peak on Wednesday afternoon nationally, travelers should expect much heavier than normal congestion throughout the week.”

Skies will be just as crowded

Air travel will also see a big spike: INRIX estimates 4.45 million Americans will fly somewhere for Thanksgiving, a 4.6% increase from last year.

The busiest airport day will be the Sunday after Thanksgiving: 3.1 million passengers are expected to fly that day, according to Airlines for America, a trade organization representing U.S. airlines.

The Monday before Thanksgiving is the lightest travel day compared with others surrounding the holiday, according to AAA and A4A data. Something else to consider: The cheapest plane tickets usually fall on Thanksgiving Day. If you only have to drive a couple of hours or your destination isn't far from the airport, it could be easier to travel on Turkey Day itself. (There's little margin for error that way, however.)

Bye, pilgrims; hello, palm trees

Thanksgiving weekend is often a departure window for snowbirds fleeing the Northeast for their warm-weather homes in Florida, home to four of the cities on AAA's list of top Thanksgiving weekend bookings. Orlando, Florida, and Anaheim, California, lead the top 10, indicating many AAA customers are Disney-bound. New York, Las Vegas and Phoenix also claimed spots on the list.

For travelers opting to ditch Thanksgiving dinner in favor of a long weekend at the beach, there are two Hawaiian spots in the domestic top 10. The top international destinations: Nassau, Bahamas; Cancun, Mexico; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; and Montego Bay, Jamaica. 

Just one cold-weather spot made the international list: Munich, Germany, which is home to a famous Christmas market.

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