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What’s ahead for travelers during Thanksgiving 2023

More people travel for Thanksgiving than any other U.S. holiday, and they get on the road or board planes starting nearly a week ahead of time. Friday — Nov. 17 this year — is generally regarded as the start of the holiday travel season, which stretches to the Tuesday following the holiday, Nov. 28 this year.

It’s already been a record year for travel: The Transportation Security Administration saw seven of the 10 busiest days in its history in 2023, said Administrator David Pekoske. The TSA expects to screen more than 30 million travelers over the period, according to a news release, noting the three busiest days have historically been the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after.

And don’t expect a reprieve on the roads — most Americans will get to their holiday destination by automobile. More than 55 million people are expected to head at least 50 miles to their Thanksgiving destination between Wednesday, Nov. 22 and Sunday, Nov. 26, and more than 49 million of them will drive, according to AAA. The organization predicts this year will see the third-highest travel numbers for the holiday stretch since 2000, marking a return to pre-pandemic levels. 

Here’s what to expect — and when.

The days leading up to the holiday: Friday — Tuesday

Travel and transportation organizations said that people traveling for the holiday tend to spread out the days they leave, which means travelers won’t face as much congestion in the days leading up to Wednesday.

While Friday, Nov. 17 is expected to be the fourth-busiest of the period for air travel, according to trade group Airlines for America, the number of flights will tick up on Saturday, Nov. 18 and Sunday, Nov. 19, going from an estimated 39,055 flights to 44,147, according to the Federal Aviation Administration

Travel has traditionally been lighter the Monday before Thanksgiving than other days near the holiday, but United Airlines noted in its announcement that travel on off-peak days is getting fuller compared with 2019 — thanks in part to remote work. The airline said demand the Monday before Thanksgiving is up nearly 10% compared with 2019 — while in contrast, demand for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is up a mere 3%. Still, the FAA says more than 46,000 flights are scheduled for Monday, Nov. 20 — more than either Saturday or Sunday, but much fewer than the peak travel day, Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Nov. 21, TSA is projecting to screen 2.6 million passengers; the FAA is forecasting more than 48,000 flights for the day.

The day before Thanksgiving: Wednesday, Nov. 22

If you’re traveling the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, you’ll have a lot of company. The Federal Aviation Administration says that’s the day the most flights are scheduled — 49,606 of them in the U.S., to be exact.

The TSA expects to screen 2.7 million passengers on Wednesday, and trade group Airlines for America says it will be the second-busiest day of the holiday period for flyers.

Wednesday is also the day the most drivers will be hitting the road, according to AAA, citing data from transportation data company Inrix. If you’re loading up the car that day, try to get moving before 11 a.m., the group said — the busiest time for auto travelers will be between 2–6 p.m.

“The day before Thanksgiving is notoriously one of the most congested days on our roadways. Travelers should be prepared for long delays, especially in and around major metros,” said Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX. “Knowing when and where congestion will build can help minimize holiday traffic frustrations. We advise drivers to use traffic apps, local DOT notifications and 511 services for real-time updates.”

Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 23 and Black Friday, Nov. 24

Thanksgiving itself is one of the easier days to travel over the holiday stretch: Airlines for America pegs it as the lightest travel day of the period for flyers. If you’re planning to drive, AAA recommends doing so before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m., with the busiest time on the roads expected to be between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

And while the FAA forecasts more flights on Friday than Saturday — 44,744, nearly as many as Sunday, versus 41,640 on Saturday — Airlines for America projects Saturday will be the fifth busiest of the Thanksgiving stretch.

If you’re planning to hit early brick-and-mortar Black Friday sales at your holiday destination, give yourself a break before getting back on the road for home. INRIX says the most congested times to drive will be between 12–4 p.m., and roads will be less crowded before 11 a.m. and after 7 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 25, Sunday, Nov. 26 and Monday, Nov. 27

Nearly 42,000 flights are scheduled for Saturday and almost 45,000 on Sunday, according to the FAA. Overall, Airlines for America said to expect Sunday to be the busiest travel day, with more than 3.2 million passengers flying. 

That’s an expectation shared by the TSA, which anticipates 2.9 million airline passengers will be screened Sunday, Nov. 26, according to the TSA. United Airlines also announced Sunday will be one of the company’s busiest travel days since before the pandemic. More than 517,000 people are expected to fly on a United flight that day, according to a news release from the company, 60,000 more than last year.

While data company Cirium projects Sunday to be the biggest travel day of the year, passengers will still be making their way on Monday — according to AAA, “While Sunday is typically the busiest day to return home, AAA data shows Monday is also a popular day to fly back after Thanksgiving.”

American Airlines said Sunday will be its busiest travel day and Monday the second busiest with 6,100 and 6,000 departures, respectively. Delta said it expects peak travel days over the period will include Sunday and Monday, and Airlines for America said the two days will be the first and third busiest, respectively, for air travel during the Thanksgiving travel period.

And if you’re hauling dinner supplies to Thanksgiving or leftovers home afterward, the TSA said to be prepared for likely additional screening if you have food in your carry-on and know what needs to go in a checked bag instead.

“If you can spill it, spread it, spray it, pump it or pour it, and it’s larger than 3.4 ounces, then it should go in a checked bag,” the TSA said on its website. “If you need to keep items cold during your trip, ice packs are permissible, but they must be frozen solid and not melted when they go through security screening.”

Pie, turkey and stuffing can be carried on, the TSA noted, but cranberry sauce, gravy and wine have to be checked. And if you are carrying on, the agency recommends packing them so they’re easy to take out of your bag and putting them in a bin for screening when it’s your turn at the checkpoint.

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Amit Ghosh
Amit Ghosh


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