Thanksgiving traffic: The best and worst times to travel

Thanksgiving is almost here, and with it one of the busiest travel days of the year.

The annual November holiday is a time to gather with friends and family around the dinner table and share what makes you thankful. In years past, it was not uncommon for family members to make hours-long trips for Thanksgiving, or even fly across the country. But the Covid-19 pandemic has changed travel plans over the past two years, during which many Americans were forced to spend the beloved holiday at home.

Now, experts warn Thanksgiving traffic may reach its highest level since before the pandemic, as people are more eager than ever to spend time together.

According to new data released by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and traffic data company INRIX, nearly 5 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more during the long holiday weekend. This marks a 1.5 per cent increase since 2021, and possibly the third busiest travel day on Thanksgiving since 2000.

“Families and friends are eager to spend time together this Thanksgiving, one of the busiest for travel in the past two decades,” said Paula Twidale, AAA’s senior vice president of travel, in a press release. “Plan ahead and pack your patience, whether you’re driving or flying.”

AAA predicts most travellers will drive to their destinations, with nearly 49 million people expected to travel by car. More than 4.5 million Americans will return home for Thanksgiving by plane, which is an increase of more than 330,000 travelers since 2019.

Airports in the US are typically at their busiest on Saturdays at noon, according to data from Google, and their least busy on Wednesdays around 8pm. Experts suggest arriving early to the airport and reserving airport parking spaces ahead of time.

“Anticipate long TSA lines,” Twidale said. “If possible, avoid checking a bag to allow for more flexibility if flights are delayed or you need to reschedule.”

For those who are traveling by car for Thanksgiving, here are some of the best and worst times to hit the road.

There are expected to be heavy traffic delays in major US cities like Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles. To avoid the longest traffic lines, INRIX recommends travelling early in the morning on Wednesday, or before 11am on Thanksgiving Day, as well as avoiding travel between 4pm-8pm Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

On Wednesday (23 November), the best time to travel by car is before 8am and after 8pm, while the worst travel time is between 11am and 8pm, INRIX anticipates.

For Thanksgiving Day (24 November), travellers should expect traffic anytime between 11am and 3pm. Instead, INRIX finds Americans are more likely to beat traffic if they leave for their destination before 11am, and make their way back home any time after 6pm.

After the holiday, people travelling by car on Friday (25 November) are advised to leave before 11am or after 8pm. Meanwhile, the best time to travel the day after Thanksgiving is expected to be between 4pm and 8pm.

When it comes to Black Friday shopping, traffic picks up on Friday around noon and peaks around 4pm in most places across the US, according to Google, which means you can likely get a head start on some holiday shopping by hitting the road between 7am and 10am.

For friends and family members who are visiting during the long weekend, experts say you can expect heavy traffic between 4pm and 8pm on both Saturday and Sunday. The best time to hit the road on Saturday is expected to be before 2pm and after 8pm, while Sunday’s best travel times are likely before 11am and after 8pm.