On the heels of a record-setting summer travel season, this holiday season is likewise shaping up to be a record-breaker for air travel.
It all starts with Thanksgiving, when U.S. airlines expect to fly nearly 30 million passengers between Nov. 17-27 — more than any year in history, according to the airline trade group Airlines for America. And don’t expect the crowds to lighten when Christmas and New Year’s arrive, either.
Assuming this Thanksgiving follows historical patterns, you can expect the biggest crowds next week in the two days just before Turkey Day and on the Sunday after the holiday, according to the TSA.
At security checkpoints, agents will be working to keep lines moving. Their goal: wait times of 10 minutes or less in the TSA PreCheck lanes and a half-hour or less in the standard lanes.
“We expect this holiday season to be our busiest ever,” TSA administrator David Pekoske said in a statement this week.
That prediction tracks with what agents saw during much of the summer. Seven of the 10 busiest days ever at TSA checkpoints have come in 2023, including the agency’s all-time single-day record of nearly 2.9 million passengers screened on June 30, 2023.
Suffice it to say, if you’re traveling for Thanksgiving or for a December holiday, it’s a good time to make sure that your TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or Clear membership is active. Also make sure your Known Traveler Number is attached to your flight reservation.
Meanwhile, all eyes will be on how airlines perform following 2022’s headaches, most notably the Southwest Airlines December meltdown, That meltdown was an operational disaster the airline says it will avoid this year thanks to a host of changes.
Overall, U.S.-based carriers have canceled a collective 1.4% of flights since January, according to data from FlightAware.That’s down sharply from around 2.3% during that same period in 2022. (However, the rate of delays is up slightly, with delays affecting around 21% of flights).
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Busiest days to travel over Thanksgiving
Over an 11-day period at Thanksgiving, U.S. airlines will serve an average of 2.7 million passengers per day, Airlines for America says — up by 9% from 2022.
However, the crowds won’t be divided evenly among those days.
Here’s what the TSA projects for the three days expected to be the busiest for air travel:
- Tuesday, Nov. 21— 2.6 million passengers expected to be screened
- Wednesday, Nov. 22 — 2.7 million passengers expected to be screened
- Sunday, Nov. 26 — 2.9 million passengers expected to be screened (this would be an all-time record)
The Sunday after the holiday, in particular, will be especially crowded. In both 2021 and 2022, TSA checkpoints set what were, at the time, new pandemic-era records for passenger traffic on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
In 2019, the TSA set its all-time record for passenger throughput on the Sunday after the holiday — a record that stood until Fourth of July holiday travelers broke it this summer.
What about driving?
As usual, even more Americans will drive over Thanksgiving.
More than 55 million U.S. travelers will take Thanksgiving road trips, up about 2% from last year, according to AAA.
There’s some good news for drivers, too: The national average for a gallon of regular gas currently sits at $3.35, down from $3.58 over the holiday period last year.
That’s despite airlines battling cost pressures from rising jet fuel prices in recent months.
Still, if you are driving for Thanksgiving, be sure to pay at the pump with a credit card that offers bonus points or cash back at gas stations, and consider stacking those bonus points with gas rewards programs and other ways to save on gas.
Busiest days to travel at Christmas and New Year’s
It’s a little harder to predict the busiest days for Christmas and New Year’s since the holidays fall on a different day of the week each year, unlike Thanksgiving.
Plus, recent years have held no shortage of abnormalities, from last December’s bad weather and Southwest meltdown to COVID-19 and the omicron variant surge disrupting travel in 2020 and 2021.
Last year, the three busiest days for air travel over the December holidays were as follows, per TSA data:
- Dec. 21, 2022 (a Thursday)
- Dec. 30, 2022 (a Friday)
- Jan. 2, 2023 (a Monday — and a federal holiday following New Year’s Day)
This year, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day fall on a Monday. It seems a safe bet that airports will be busy leading into the weekends prior to the two holidays, particularly Christmas.
Citing its booking data, Chase Travel says the three busiest travel days in December will be:
- Friday, Dec. 22, 2023
- Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023
- Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023
It’s shaping up to be the busiest holiday season ever for air travel. With those airport crowds in mind, it’s a good time to double-check that you booked your flight and all other trip elements with a credit card that includes travel insurance protections.
As you travel, don’t forget to take advantage of those airline fee credits on cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express. Also, don’t forget to use other checked bag or travel credits on an airline credit card. This is where you can really offset that annual fee.