The busiest days to fly during the holidays

Most weeks of the year, Fridays are the busiest days to fly and Tuesdays are the least busy. But during the holidays, this trend does not necessarily hold true.

In most years, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is actually the busiest travel day for U.S. airports, according to the Transportation Security Administration, which tracks the number of passengers screened daily. Two days before Christmas and one day before Thanksgiving also tend to attract large crowds at airports.

Here’s a breakdown of the best and worst days to fly during winter vacation, and how you can strategize to avoid crowds and save money.

The busiest days to fly around Thanksgiving

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is brutal for airport crowds. For every 100 people who flew on Thanksgiving Day 2021, there were 177 people who flew the following Sunday, according to the TSA.

That same Sunday was the busiest airport travel day of the year in 2019 and 2021. In 2020, the busiest days were largely concentrated in January and February, before the widespread impact of COVID-19, which would reduce holiday travel later in the year.

Here’s a look at the days surrounding Thanksgiving week over the past three years, listed in order of most to least air travelers at U.S. TSA checkpoints:

Assuming past trends continue into 2022, expect Sunday November 27 to be the busiest travel day around Thanksgivingfollowed by Wednesday 23 November. Even if you fly out a day before the biggest crowd, Saturday November 26 will also likely be busy.

And this year, the crowds are likely to be larger than they have been for the past two years.

“Thanksgiving travel volumes resemble what we generally saw before the pandemic in 2019,” says Hayley Berg, chief economist at travel booking app Hopper.

The busiest days to fly around Christmas

Christmas airport crowds can be harder to predict than Thanksgiving crowds since the holidays fall on a different weekday each year and air travel patterns are often dictated by the work week.

But just as the Sunday after Thanksgiving tends to draw huge crowds, the days right after Christmas are very popular. And just like the few people who travel on Thanksgiving Day itself, relatively few people travel on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day.

Here’s a look at Christmas and the seven calendar dates before and after over the past three years, ranked by most to least average air travelers, based on TSA checkpoint data:

The 2022 holiday travel season will be different because Hanukkah, which begins on 25 Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, aligns closely with Christmas. While the eight-day celebration sometimes takes place in November or early December, this year it begins on December 18 and ends on December 26.

There is also the week-long celebration of Kwanzaa, which runs from December 26 to January 1. Thus, travelers during this period could celebrate more than Christmas, potentially concentrating more holiday crowds at airports than in other years.

Plus, one of the busiest travel days of the year, December 23 – Christmas Eve – falls on a Friday this year. Friday, you will recall, is usually the busiest travel day of any given week. December 23 is not a public holiday, but many vacationers can leave on this day.

How to Choose Less Busy (and Cheaper) Travel Days

Traveling during the holidays is often the best way to avoid the crowds. Take the first flight of the day and you might arrive in time for the evening festivities. Taking early flights is also considered good practice for reduce your risk of flight delays. In the first eight months of 2022, 7.3% of flights were delayed because a plane arrived late, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

If you can take days off or work remotely, it might be a good idea to fly as long as possible before or after the holidays.

Travelers can save an average of 15% by departing the first half of the week instead of the Thursday or Friday before Christmas this year, according to flight data from travel search engine Expedia. Average ticket prices for departures on the Monday before Thanksgiving are 15% cheaper than Wednesday departures, Expedia also found.

Or consider celebrating something like a non-Thanksgiving, where you move the family dinner a few days or weeks. The turkey, potatoes, and pumpkin pie don’t need reservations for the fourth Thursday in November.

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