By Sally French | NerdWallet
Most weeks of the year, Friday is the busiest day for air travel, and Tuesday is the least busy day. During the holidays, though, that doesn’t necessarily hold true.
In most years, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day at U.S. airports, according to the Transportation Security Administration, which tracks the number of passengers screened daily. The two days after Christmas also see heavy travel. And since Christmas falls on a Monday this year, that might mean an abnormally busy Tuesday and Wednesday of that week.
To avoid crowds and save money, consider skipping the busy days and book your flights on one of the slower ones. Here’s a breakdown of the best and worst days to fly during the winter holidays, 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. Last year, about 83% more people flew on the Sunday after Thanksgiving than on Thanksgiving Day, according to TSA data, making it the busiest travel day of 2022.
That same Sunday was also the year’s single busiest airport travel day in both 2019 and 2021. In 2020, the busiest days of the year for air travel 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 three busiest days to fly in the seven calendar dates before and after Thanksgiving over the past four years, based on TSA checkpoint data:
And here are the three least busy days to fly in that period:
Assuming past trends continue in 2023, expect Sunday, Nov. 26, to be the busiest travel day around Thanksgiving, followed by Wednesday, Nov. 22. Even if you fly out one day ahead of the biggest crowds, Saturday, Nov. 25, will also likely be busy.
And this year, crowds will likely be bigger based on the fact that past 2023 holidays have already set air travel records. For example, 2023’s Fourth of July weekend set records for U.S. air travel. More than 2.884 million people passed through TSA checkpoints on the Friday before July 4, according to TSA checkpoint data. That topped the previous record, which was on the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2019, when a recorded 2.882 million people passed through TSA checkpoints.
The busiest days to fly around Christmas
Christmas airport crowds can be trickier to predict than Thanksgiving crowds given that the holiday falls on a different day of the week each year and air travel patterns are often dictated by the workweek. This year, Christmas falls on a Monday.
But just as the Sunday after Thanksgiving tends to draw huge crowds, the days just after Christmas are wildly popular. And much like how few people travel on Thanksgiving Day itself, relatively few people travel on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day.
Here’s a look at the three busiest days to fly in the seven calendar dates before and after Christmas over the past four years, based on TSA checkpoint data:
And here are the three least busy days to fly in that period:
This year, you might expect Friday, Dec. 22, to be particularly busy. Friday is typically the busiest travel day in any given week, and — especially during Christmas week — many holiday travelers may leave on that day.
According to Chase Travel, Friday, Dec. 22, is one of the top three busiest days across all flights booked in either December 2023 or January 2024 (the other two busiest days are Saturday, Dec. 23, and Saturday, Dec. 30). Similarly, booking site Hopper anticipates that day having the highest fare for the Christmas season.
This holiday travel season may see some relief, though. Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, can sometimes align closely with Christmas. The eight-day celebration ran from Dec. 18-26 in 2022, but this year will commence on Dec. 15 — likely before the Christmas crowds start.
Another consideration for travel is that the weeklong celebration of Kwanzaa runs from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.
How to choose less crowded (and cheaper) travel days
The holiday travel season is always expensive, but there is some decrease from last year’s prices. Airfares for Christmas trips are averaging $400 according to Hopper data. That’s down 12%, or about $52 per ticket, from last year. The bad news is that it’s still 29% higher than holiday airfares were in 2019.
Travel on the holiday: Traveling on the holiday is often the best way to avoid crowds and save money. Last year, 23.4% more people flew on the day after Christmas versus Christmas Day, which fell on a Sunday.
And that demand has a strong effect on prices. According to Hopper, domestic flights on Christmas Day average about 26% less than peak prices.
Book morning flights: If you are traveling on the holiday, catch the first flight out for the day and you might arrive in time for evening festivities. Taking early flights is also considered good practice to reduce your odds of a flight delay. In the first half of 2023, 7.8% of flights were delayed because an aircraft arrived late, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.
Stay longer: If you can take the days off or work remotely, then it can make sense to fly as long before or after a holiday as possible.
For Thanksgiving, Hopper recommends flying the Monday of Thanksgiving week and returning any weekday the following week. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is historically the busiest day to fly, so extending your trip by just one day can save you money. According to Hopper, airfares average 40% less on the Monday after Thanksgiving versus the Sunday after.
For Christmas, Hopper recommends departing the Monday or Tuesday before Christmas weekend and returning midweek following the holiday.
Skip holiday travel completely: If you don’t mind celebrating in an unconventional way, consider participating in something like an un-holiday, where you shift the celebration by a couple of days or weeks.
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