Thanksgiving travel: Drivers can expect near pre-pandemic traffic, cheaper gas

Americans are dashing out of town in what’s expected to be the third-busiest Thanksgiving travel week in 22 years, with only 2005 and 2019 seeing more travelers, according to AAA.

Roughly 54.6 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home this Thanksgiving, a 1.5% increase over 2021 and nearly as many (98%) as pre-pandemic.

The lion’s share of those — about 49 million people — will travel by car.

“Americans are not pulling back on travel this year,” Aixa Diaz, AAA spokesperson, told Yahoo Money. “The desire for leisure travel is there despite inflation, despite higher gas prices.”

FILE - A customer pumps gas at an Exxon gas station, Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in Miami. U.S. consumers were less confident this month as concerns about inflation took hold again after receding in recent months.
The Conference Board reported Tuesday, Oct. 25,  that its consumer confidence index fell to 102.5 in October, from 107 in September. The American consumer had grown more confident in the past couple months as rising gas prices moderated slightly even as prices for other essential items have remained elevated. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
(Getty Creative)

Gasoline prices are dropping

Gas prices will certainly take a bigger bite than last year, but there’s some relief from the $5 a gallon many Americans were paying at the pump in June.

The national average is projected to be $3.68 a gallon on Thanksgiving Day, breaking the record set 10 years ago of $3.33 per gallon, according to GasBuddy, the fuel savings platform. That’s also nearly 30 cents higher than last year.

“Gas prices this Thanksgiving will be the highest on record, but there is some good news,” Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy, told Yahoo Money. “Prices have declined in all 50 states in recent weeks and are expected to continue dropping off as we kick off the holiday season."

For the second straight week, the nation’s average gas price has declined, falling 11.9 cents from a week ago to $3.64 per gallon on Monday, according to GasBuddy data compiled from more than 11 million individual price reports covering over 150,000 gas stations. In the past month, prices have dropped 16.1 cents per gallon.

Tens of thousands of stations are selling gasoline for under $3 per gallon, and thousands more will join in the next few weeks, De Haan said.

Americans are going further from home

And travelers are buckling up for more car time than last year.

Roughly one quarter (23%) of the 1,314 respondents to GasBuddy’s Thanksgiving survey said they’ll spend one to three hours in the car, compared with 2021 when most indicated they traveled less than an hour away from home. And fewer said high gas prices this year (46% vs. 51% in 2021) would impact their travel plans.

Meantime, more than 1.4 million travelers are boarding buses, trains, and cruise ships for their Thanksgiving dash, according to AAA. That’s an increase of 23% from 2021, and 96% of the 2019 volume.

“Many travel restrictions have been lifted and people can travel more,” Diaz said, “and they are feeling more comfortable being on public transportation.”

Another bright spot. So far, it looks like weather-related travel disruptions will be limited through early this week, according to Most of the country is likely to be dry on Wednesday. But return trips could be dicier. The forecast grows more uncertain for Thanksgiving Day and beyond. A more active pattern with storms in the Northeast may develop late in the week.

Cars and trucks at intersection of Interstate 610 and US Highway 59, Houston, Texas, photo
(Getty Creative)

Advice for smooth travel

“Americans should expect an increase in traffic this year, with the busiest day and time on the road being Wednesday afternoon, De Haan said. “Though many fall victim to holiday-induced road rage, staying calm at the wheel and slowing down can boost fuel efficiency and stretch gas dollars farther."

Do a check-up on tire pressure, oil, brake and other fluid levels before you hit the road. AAA expects to rescue more than 411,000 broken down members over the Thanksgiving holiday, 5% more than last year. Flat tires, dead batteries, and lockouts will be the top reasons for vehicle breakdowns.

If your schedule is flexible, consider traveling during off-peak times during the holiday rush.

“Wednesday is still the most popular day to travel and that’s when we expect the most congestion on the roads,” Diaz said. Traffic will peak nationally Wednesday afternoon, according to AAA, based on data from the transportation analytics firm Inrix.

“We’re recommending, if you're going to leave on Wednesday, get going before 8:00 a.m. or wait until after 8:00 p.m.,” Diaz said. “If you leave early Thursday morning, anytime before 11:00 a.m., we anticipate the traffic won't be so bad.”

Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon

Read the latest personal finance trends and news from Yahoo Money.