Monday-Morning Moving: Your Top 5 Thanksgiving Travel Tips

Travel as early in the day as you can to avoid the "backup" effect of multiple delays.
Travel as early in the day as you can to avoid the “backup” effect of multiple delays.

It’s Thanksgiving travel season. Do you want the bad news now or later?

Okay, now. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was rated by USA Today Travel as one of the 10 worst days to travel in the United States. The only positive here is that some hot summer-weekend getaway days are actually busier, and worse. “It’s a different summer day each year, based on the number of domestic flights,” The U.S. Department of Transportation’s David Smallen told USA Today. In 2014, that day was Aug. 8, and since 2006, it’s always been a day in July or August.

Maybe the volume of travel is greater in summer than at Thanksgiving, but summer has nothing on Thanksgiving in the intensity department. Come the end of November, people have to get home to grandma and that sweet-potato casserole. Throw in a dollop of bad weather somewhere and the current fad of treating airline passengers like 125 college students and the plane as the Volkswagen they all have to cram into, and it’s a recipe for travel mayhem.

All acknowledged and known. But before we can approach this insanity reasonably, first we need to draw a box around the problem. Then once there’s a box around it we can address what’s in the box, devise some solutions, and then drop the box into a roaring bonfire while we dance around like a Maurice Sendak character and scream “Over The River And Through The Woods” in our best Johnny Rotten voice.

It’s like this: According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, less than 6 percent of holiday trips are by air, and more than 90 percent of Thanksgiving trips are by car. So be thankful you’re up there.

Also, the DOT has found that Thanksgiving Day is a more heavily traveled day then Wednesday (and is getting more traffic every year, as people look to avoid Wednesday travel at all costs), though most of those trips are shorter car trips. In fact, for the 44 percent of Thanksgiving trips that are between 50 and 99 miles, Thursday-Saturday is the normal duration.

It’s different if you’re flying. There, Wednesday and Sunday are the highest-volume days and the distance tends to be greater than the average Thanksgiving trip of 214 miles. (What’s interesting there is that the average Thanksgiving trip is almost 50 miles shorter than the average trip taken any other time of year.)

So there you have it. Air travel is 6 percent of all Thanksgiving trips taken, most often on Wednesday and Sunday, covering distances that are medium-haul at best. Weather is an issue, as is finding alternative flights if your scheduled flight is cancelled or you get bumped.

Here are five tips that can help you make the most of Thanksgiving travel, and still leave room for a second helping of stuffing.

  • Travel early in the day. FlightStats found in 2012 that during the holidays, “travelers were twice as likely to experience excessive delays [from] … 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. When you pair excessive delays with the fact that alternative travel options diminish as the day progresses, what you have is a situation where travelers will have significant challenges that they need to be prepared to address.” Absolutely. Or just travel early in the and avoid that mess. No one likes getting up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight, especially parents traveling with children of any age. But those of us who start most of our trips out of a small regional airport know that if you start early the plane will most likely have spent the night in your airport, meaning you stand a break-even chance of getting out, and even if you don’t get out on that flight you have a decent shot at making it out on a subsequent flight. Realize that any weather anywhere will result in a gradual slowing of the entire system as the day goes on. Get your flights done early, and nap when you get to your destination.
  • Pack a carryon. If you follow Sharyn Alden’s tips on packing for a cruise, and then wear layers onboard the plane, you’ll be sufficiently prepared for just about anything. Traveling from a warm climate to a cold one, and don’t want to throw on winter clothes for the plane ride? Buy a jacket, hat, and gloves after you land, and donate them to a local charity when you leave.
  • Avoid certain airports (and not just LaGuardia). Surprisingly, the rate of flight delays generally is less at Thanksgiving than at other times of the year. “From January to August of this year, about 22% of flights were delayed,” Christine Sarkis, senior editor at, told USA Today. “Compare that to a 19% three-year average for Thanksgiving flight delays. That’s good news to anyone traveling over the Thanksgiving period.” However, certain airports are exempt from this good news. According to an interactive map from Carto DB, Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, Seattle/Tacoma, Washington Dulles, San Francisco, and O’Hare have delays on more than 40 percent of their Thanksgiving flights. What does that mean? Try Washington Reagan, San Jose, Chicago Midway, or PDX, if the scheduling works out.
  • Consider not going home. As Bob Newhart so smashingly reminds us, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, Walt. Many places that are not in the U.S. are actually quite affordable around Thanksgiving, starting with Canada. Europe is a particularly good deal – and yes, we advocate and recommend traveling to Europe right now. If you’re not quite that adventuresome, the Orlando resorts aren’t as super-crowded as they will be later in the year, and even Disneyland is a reasonable option.
  • Buy travel insurance. The numbers show that things probably aren’t going to go wrong on your Thanksgiving trip … unless you fly out of Dallas/Fort Worth … in the afternoon … and have to connect in O’Hare … and it’s snowing anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Okay, so there are some risks involved with traveling around Thanksgiving, but don’t forget Grandma and the sweet-potato casserole. They’re risks worth taking, and for all of those, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection has you covered with AirCare and ExactCare. AirCare, with its innovative flight coverage, is actually the perfect Thanksgiving travel insurance. As we like to say, get it here. And safe travels!


Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.