Thanksgiving travel tips: Best and worst days to fly or drive

Some airlines are expecting their busiest Thanksgiving ever.

ByAmanda Maile, Clara McMichael, and Emily Shapiro ABCNews logo
Thursday, November 16, 2023
AAA predicts historic holiday travel for Thanksgiving
AAA says more people are expected to take to the air and roads this Thanksgiving holiday.

As Thanksgiving approaches, millions of Americans are gearing up to hit the highway or head to the airport -- and some airlines are expecting their busiest Thanksgiving ever.

Here's what you need to know:

Thanksgiving travel by air

AAA projects 4.7 million travelers will fly over Thanksgiving -- a 6.6% increase from last year. This would mark the highest number of people flying for Thanksgiving since 2005.

The busiest and most expensive days to fly before Thanksgiving will be Tuesday, Nov. 21, and Wednesday, Nov. 22, according to AAA.

The best day to go to the airport for Thanksgiving is Monday, Nov. 20, when flights will be 12% cheaper than on Nov. 22, according to Expedia.

A traveler uses a kiosk to check in the day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in Terminal E at Logan International Airport, in Boston.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne/FILE)

The Transportation Security Administration said it expects to screen 30 million passengers during its Thanksgiving travel period, which runs from Nov. 17 to Nov. 28.

"We expect this holiday season to be our busiest ever. In 2023, we have already seen seven of the top 10 busiest travel days in TSA's history," TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement. "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. 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."

The most popular domestic destinations for Thanksgiving this year are New York City, Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida, according to Hopper. Internationally, the most popular cities are London, Tokyo and Paris.

The cheapest days to return home will be Friday, Nov. 24, or Monday, Nov. 27, according to Hopper.

AAA projects 4.7 million travelers will fly over Thanksgiving
ABC News Photo Illustration, Expedia, AAA

United Airlines said it expects to have its busiest Thanksgiving ever, with over 5.9 million passengers -- a 13% increase from last year.

United anticipates that Sunday, Nov. 26, will be one of its busiest days since before the pandemic, with more than 517,000 people expected to fly.

Due to remote work, United said its holiday travel period has extended. United said the demand for flying the Monday before Thanksgiving is up nearly 10% from 2019, while demand for flying the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is only up 3%.

American Airlines said it predicts a record 7.8 million passengers over Thanksgiving.

Travelers enter security checkpoints at Logan International Airport, in Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, the day before Thanksgiving.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne/FILE)

American said Sunday, Nov. 26, and Monday, Nov. 27, will be its busiest days.

"I think the best tip we can offer is to ask everyone to arrive early for your flights," said John Busch, TSA's federal security director at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C. "Recommendation is always two hours before a domestic flight, three hours before an international flight."

Thanksgiving travel by road

AAA projects that 55.4 million people will drive 50 miles or farther from home for Thanksgiving -- a 2.3% increase from last year. This marks the third-highest Thanksgiving forecast since AAA began tracking holiday travel in 2000.

The busiest day on the roads is expected to be Wednesday, Nov. 22, according to transportation analytics company INRIX. Drivers should leave home in the morning or after 6 p.m. to avoid the heaviest traffic, INRIX said.

On Sunday, Nov. 26, the worst traffic is forecast to be between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. The best time to hit the road will be before noon, according to INRIX.

AAA projects that 55.4 million people will drive 50 miles or farther from home for Thanksgiving
ABC News Photo Illustration, AAA, INRIX

Americans are on pace for record setting holiday travel this season, and while all the major airlines say they're ready, passengers don't want a repeat of last year.

Airlines and airports across the U.S. have started to brace for what's expected to be the busiest holiday travel rush ever.

Nick Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, formerly known as Air Transport Association of America, told "Good Morning America" that "this is shaping up to be a record setting year."

The Transportation Security Administration said it expects to screen 30 million passengers between Nov. 17-27, or approximately 2.7 million passengers per day, up 10% from the same time last year.

Over the holiday travel rush last year, there were widespread flight cancellations and massive meltdowns that left thousands stranded.

MORE: Historic holiday travel season in the air and on the roads: AAA

So far this year, cancellations have dropped dramatically, down to just 1.6% of flights. But delays have ticked up to their highest level in a decade, affecting around 1 in 5 flights, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which has been largely led by discount airlines such as JetBlue, Frontier, and Spirit.

Consumer complaints about airlines have also soared, with nearly double the amount in the first three months of 2023, compared to the same time last year, according to the Department of Transportation.

Another concern bubbling up ahead of the holidays is a shortage of air traffic controllers. Last week on Capitol Hill, the lead investigator of the National Transportation Safety Board partially blamed the shortage for 23 close calls this year, where planes nearly collided on takeoff or landing.

"While these events are incredibly rare, our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore," Jennifer Homendy, chair of the NTSB, said in a statement at the time.

David Seymour, COO of American Airlines, told ABC News this week, "We certainly need to see more air traffic controllers in place. We're managing through the events on good days like we're having today -- we just have to be mindful that when weather hits certain parts of the country, there are going to be constraints."

Still, with the holidays looming, airlines believe they're ready and have hired on tens of thousands of new employees.

American Airlines has both expanded its schedule for the busy holiday period and enlisted larger planes to handle the high volume of travelers.

"We're going to carry more customers than we ever have before, about a half a million more than last year," Seymour said.

United has also added more than 550,000 seats to meet the increased demand of the holidays.

"My No. 1 recommendation to people would be pray for good weather. That is always the key," Calio told "GMA." "Get to the airport early. If you don't have your airlines app, get it, because you get constant notifications about your gate, any delay, any type of cancellation or anything like that."

While each airline is different, if passengers do run into issues this season, the DOT has a dashboard where travelers can read what each airline will give you if the delay or cancellation is their fault.