An estimated 112.7 million people will travel from home for the holidays between December 23 and January 2, or 3.6 million people more than last year. That also will likely translate to the third busiest year for holiday travel since AAA began tracking in 2000, nearly matching 2018 and reaching 94.5% of 2019’s volume.
The bright spot is that — despite the increase in crowds and traffic — the traditional crunch travel days may not be as snarled as they were pre-pandemic.
“This holiday season includes back-to-back holiday weekends, with Christmas and New Year’s Day falling on Sundays,” Aixa Diaz, AAA spokesperson, told Yahoo Money. “And with the rise in hybrid work, more people now have the option to extend their trips, work remotely from their destinations, and depart and return on less busy travel days.”
On the road
The bulk of American holiday travelers, nearly 102 million, will drive to their destinations. That’s up 2 million drivers from last year, according to AAA.
The most congested days on the road will be December 23, December 27, December 28, and January 2, as travelers mingle with commuters, according to INRIX, a provider of transportation analytics and insights.
In major metros, particularly on December 27 — and especially in Los Angeles and New York City — drivers could encounter double the usual gridlock delays. Overall, drivers nationwide could see travel times 25% longer.
And, as always, weather can wreak havoc with even the best travel plans. The National Weather Service reports “confidence is growing in a powerful winter storm” to impact much of the eastern two-thirds of the country and across the Midwest and Ohio Valley late [this] week.
One joyful development: gas prices. The national average is expected to drop back below $2.99 per gallon around December 23, according to Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy.
“Though 2022 has been a tumultuous year for gasoline prices, drivers this holiday season can rejoice in the fact that average gas prices in the U.S. are now below where they were one year ago,” De Haan told Yahoo Money. “The year is nearly over, but at last, it seems like gas prices are done breaking records in 2022.”
Up, up and away
Expect full flights and airports this holiday season with 28.8 million passengers departing from U.S airports from Sunday, December 18 through Monday, December 26, according to data from Hopper, the travel booking app
That’s 18% more passengers than Christmas week last year, with 25.5 million passengers headed to domestic destinations and 3.4 million passengers jetting off to international ports of call.
All told 54 million passengers will take off from U.S. airports over the entire holiday period starting Sunday, December 18 through Tuesday, January 3, up 20% from last year and 4% higher than in 2019, Haley Berg, lead economist at Hopper, told Yahoo Money.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reports that airport security checkpoints nationwide will be busier this holiday travel season than last year with travel volumes nearing pre-pandemic levels, The busiest days are expected to be Thursday, Dec. 22 and Friday, Dec. 30.
“We are prepared for the increased volume and expect to meet our wait time standards of 30 minutes or less in standard lanes and 10 minutes or less in TSA PreCheck lanes,” David Pekoske, TSA Administrator, said in a statement. “However, there may be some situations where the capacity of a checkpoint is exceeded.”
Ticket prices are not quite as high as last year, yet. Domestic airfare for Christmas is averaging $353 round-trip this week, compared with an average of $390 round-trip last Christmas, but already up 5% over last week.
“Prices will just continue to surge as we get closer to the holiday,” Berg said.
The most affordable day to fly is Monday, December 19, while the most expensive day is Thursday, December 22, Melanie Fish, head of global public relations for Expedia, told Yahoo Money.
“When planning your return trip or your post-Christmas trip, avoid flying back Monday the 26th and instead depart Tuesday or Wednesday,” she said.
Airports will be crammed the week ahead of Christmas, with the highest volume of departing passengers, 3.37 million a day, flying out of U.S. airports on the Thursday and Friday ahead of Christmas Eve, according to Berg.
“Traffic will remain relatively high the week following Christmas as Americans head home from holiday trips, and others head out on New Years trips,” she said.
Monday, December 26 will be the busiest day to return with an expected 3.35 million passengers departing from U.S. airports, according to Hopper’s report. Travelers flying on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day will catch a breather with less than 2.8 million passengers expected to depart each day.
For New Year’s travelers, airports will be jammed again Thursday and Friday ahead of New Year’s Eve, with around 3.34 million passengers departing per day, according to Hopper’s report. Monday, January 2 will be the busiest day to head home, with 3.35 million passengers expected to depart, the same as the day after Christmas.
“Overall, the most affordable day to fly is actually New Year’s Eve,” Fish said.
How to cope with travel crowds
Arrive at least two hours ahead of your morning flight time if you’re departing from one of the busiest airports over the Christmas travel week, Berg said, which are expected to be Atlanta, Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles.
If you’re booking a last minute trip, the best way to find cheap airfare is to be flexible on the days you fly. A departure earlier in the week ahead of Christmas weekend will save you the most dough. Add some extra days to pad your travel around Christmas or New Year’s — either before or after. You’ll miss the peak times and fare pricing should be a tad cheaper.
Grab a seat on the first flight out. You’ll be less likely to be knocked off schedule by delays from flight mishaps earlier in the day.
Be ready for things to go awry by downloading your carrier’s mobile app to your phone, so you can easily tap information and get updates for your flight – gate information, flight status, baggage tracking, automatic rebooking and more.
And finally, when it comes to your hotel, don’t panic if you haven’t booked a room yet, Berg said. You can often find good deals at the last minute, as hotels — particularly in big cities — will drop prices in the days leading up to the holiday.
Kerry is a Senior Reporter and Columnist at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon
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