Significant Rebound in Thanksgiving Holiday Travel Expected This Year

AAA: Approximately 53.4 million people will travel for the holiday, bringing volumes within 5 percent of 2019's pre-pandemic levels.

NATIONAL REPORT — After a tumultuous 2020 for holiday travel, airports and roads will be more jam-packed this year as travelers make their way to their Thanksgiving destinations.

AAA predicts 53.4 million consumers will travel for the holiday, up from 13 percent in 2020. This brings travel volumes within 5 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2019, with air travel almost completely recovering from its dramatic fall during the pandemic over last year (+80 percent).

"This Thanksgiving, travel will look a lot different than last year," said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. "Now that the borders are open and new health and safety guidelines are in place, travel is once again high on the list for Americans who are ready to reunite with their loved ones for the holiday."

With 6.4 million more people traveling this Thanksgiving coupled with the recent opening of the U.S. borders to fully vaccinated international travelers, consumers should prepare for roads and airports to be noticeably more crowded, Twidale added.

"International travel re-opening will allow people to reconnect with friends and family and explore new places, while also giving a much-needed boost to the economy," she said. "But it also means airports will be busier than we've seen, so travelers must plan for long lines and extra time for TSA checks."

Roads Will Be Bustling

This year's forecast marks the highest single-year increase in Thanksgiving travelers since 2005.

INRIX, in collaboration with AAA, predicts drivers will experience the worst congestion heading into the holiday weekend as commuters leave work early and mix with holiday travelers. Major metro areas across the United States could see more than double the delays vs. typical drive times, with drivers in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and New York likely to experience more than three times the delays.

"Thanksgiving is one of the busiest holidays for road trips and this year will be no different even during the pandemic," noted INRIX Transportation Analyst Bob Pishue. "Drivers around major metros must be prepared for significant delays, especially Wednesday afternoon. Knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic."

Despite gas prices being more than $1 per gallon than this time last year, 90 percent of consumers plan to travel by car as their preferred mode of travel. AAA forecasts that 48.3 million will drive to their Thanksgiving destination this year.

While car is still the most popular choice for travelers, a greater share will opt to travel by air (4.2 million) and other modes such as bus, train or cruise (1 million). 

Popular Thanksgiving Destinations for 2021

AAA Travel continues to see a strong recovery that began over the summer and will continue into the holiday season. AAA booking data reveals that big cities and tropical destinations are topping travelers' list this Thanksgiving both domestically and abroad.

The top U.S. destinations are:

  1. Orlando, Fla.
  2. Anaheim, Calif.
  3. Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas
  4. Phoenix
  5. Honolulu
  6. Kahului, Maui, Hawaii
  7. Atlanta
  8. Tampa, Fla.
  9. Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

The top international destinations are:

  1. Cancun, Mexico
  2. Montego Bay, Jamaica
  3. Aruba
  4. Los Cabos, Mexico
  5. Nassau, Bahamas
  6. St. Lucia, West Indies
  7. Dublin, Ireland
  8. Tel Aviv, Israel and Calgary, Canada (tie)
  9. Paris