People will take to the roads and airports in droves over the next week, with travel analysts predicting more people will be traveling for the holiday than last year. From Wednesday through Sunday, AAA predicts 55.4 million travelers will head 50 miles or more from home.
Crowded and expensive skies
Among those 55.4 million projected travelers, 4.69 million of them will be flying to get to their destinations. The number of people expected to fly for Thanksgiving is up 6.6% from last year and 2.5% compared to 2019 figures.
Also up this year is the cost of flights, with AAA estimating the average domestic flight is $681, a 5% increase from 2022. AAA media relations manager Aixa Diaz told the Washington Examiner that the rise in prices year to year has to do with the increasing interest in flying since the pandemic in 2020.
“There is a lot of demand for flights, and what we’ve seen is that air travel in particular just keeps building ever since 2020,” Diaz told the Washington Examiner. “So year after year, more people want to travel by air over the holidays.
“After COVID we’ve seen this steady increase [in travel], and now we’re in some cases surpassing pre-pandemic number,” Diaz added. “Overall, this forecast is just shy of 2019. But when you look at just air travel, it’s exceeding 2019.”
Diaz said deals on flights are there, even when prices are up year to year, with the best time to book flights for holiday travel being “as early as possible.” She added that if travelers can sacrifice a direct flight or premium seating, then they are more likely to score deals.
AAA estimates that 49.13 million people will hit the freeways during the peak Thanksgiving travel days, which is up 1.7% from 2022 but down 1.6% compared to 2019. Diaz said 2019 was an above-average travel year when comparing this year’s projections to figures from that year.
“We’re already comparing it to an above-average [year],” Diaz said. “So the fact that we still haven’t ‘caught up,’ if that’s how you want to look at it, to driving, I wouldn’t look too much into that. I think it fluctuates if people want to travel or not by car or whether they take a road trip. I think a significant number to look at is the air travel because that indicates that people are willing to spend the money and travel.”
Less pain at the pump
While more cars are expected on the roads, drivers will be paying less at the pump this Thanksgiving travel season than last year. Gas prices typically fall after the busy summer driving season, and motorists will be paying roughly 50 cents less per gallon this year compared to Thanksgiving 2022, Diaz said.
“They keep going down, so we expect them to keep dipping as we get closer to Thanksgiving Day,” Diaz said. “We expect gas prices to be cheaper usually this time of year. Applications have switched to a winter blend, which is cheaper.”
“Barring any sort of major event, we expect them to keep going down as to get closer to Thanksgiving,” Diaz continued. “National average right now is like $3.34. We could be saying $3.25 nationally by Thanksgiving Day, and right now, about just shy of a dozen states are less than $3 a gallon on average, so they certainly come down.”
For those traveling by car, Wednesday will be the busiest day for travel, with 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. being the peak of traffic.
“That’s going to be the busiest time,” Diaz said. “And then coming back on Sunday, if you can leave first thing in the morning … you’re going to be in a better spot. Because if you get stuck on the interstate any time after noon on Sunday, you’re going to be waiting [in] traffic for a long time.”
Travel nightmares remembered
As travelers head to the airport, memories of last year’s airline meltdown during the Christmas travel season will be on their minds. Since the disastrous delays and cancellations in December 2022, specifically with Southwest Airlines, the Department of Transportation and the airline have proposed various changes.
Southwest had to cancel nearly 17,000 flights late last year when winter weather conditions set off a chain reaction that caused the entire airline to face systemic problems. In March, the airline announced it would increase staffing around the holidays and to purchase more de-icing equipment for its planes. It also announced upgrades to its computer systems.
“We understand the root causes that led to the holiday disruption, and we’re validating our internal review with the third-party assessment,” Southwest Airlines President and CEO Bob Jordan said in a statement at the time. “Now, we expect to mitigate the risk of an event of this magnitude ever happening again.”
Southwest officials said in a regulatory filing that they expect to receive a fine from the Department of Transportation over the 2022 service disruption. Since the rough Christmas 2022 season, the Department of Transportation proposed a new rule to require airlines to compensate passengers better for delays and cancellations.
“This rule would, for the first time in U.S. history, propose to require airlines to compensate passengers and cover expenses such as meals, hotels, and rebooking in cases where the airline has caused a cancellation or significant delay,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement on the proposed rule in May.