(NerdWallet) – Thanksgiving week tends to draw major airport crowds, and coupled with inevitable weather delays, it can be a brutal time to travel. Not to mention, the conventional wisdom to fly on Tuesdays won’t necessarily save you much money.
But some days within Thanksgiving week are significantly busier than others. If you can afford to be flexible with scheduling, you’ll not only save money, but you might also avoid chaos.
The best and worst days to fly around Thanksgiving
NerdWallet analyzed the past four years of checkpoint travel numbers provided by the Transportation Security Administration, which tracks the number of passengers screened daily in the U.S. at its checkpoints.
In each of the past four years, the Sunday after Thanksgiving was the most crowded day to travel from the seven days before and after Thanksgiving.
As far as the least crowded? Thanksgiving Day itself.
When averaging over the past four years, here were the most to least crowded days for Thanksgiving flying:
- Sunday after Thanksgiving (most crowded).
- Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
- Friday before.
- Monday after (Cyber Monday).
- Saturday after.
- Sunday before.
- Tuesday before.
- Thursday before.
- Monday before.
- Saturday before.
- Thursday after.
- Tuesday after (Giving Tuesday).
- Friday after (Black Friday).
- Wednesday after.
- Thanksgiving Day (least crowded).
When broken out by pre- and post-holiday travel, here are the three least-crowded days to travel ranked from least to most crowded. Because they’re less crowded and likely less expensive, it makes them some of the best days to fly around Thanksgiving.
- Saturday before (least crowded).
- Monday before.
- Thursday before.
- Wednesday after (least crowded).
- Black Friday.
- Tuesday after.
Why flying the Sunday after Thanksgiving is so terrible
By almost all metrics, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is pretty much the worst day of the year to fly. In 2019, 2021 and 2022, it was the busiest single day of the entire year in terms of U.S. passengers, based on TSA passenger data.
(The post-Thanksgiving Sunday wasn’t the busiest day of the year in 2020 because, well, you know why. The most-crowded-day award in 2020 went to Friday, Feb. 14, which preceded the Presidents Day weekend and pandemic-related travel restrictions.)
Here’s a breakdown of the number of people flying on Thanksgiving Day versus the Sunday after Thanksgiving in three recent years:
|Number of passengers in U.S. airports on the Sunday after Thanksgiving||2,882,915.||1,176,091.||2,451,300.||2,560,623.|
|Number of passengers on Thanksgiving Day (Thursday)||1,591,158.||560,902.||1,382,230.||1,400,490.|
|% larger crowds if you fly on Sunday versus Thursday||81%.||110%.||77%.||83%.|
For every 100 people who were flying on Thanksgiving Day 2022, there were 183 people flying on the Sunday after.
The smarter, cheaper Thanksgiving weekend itinerary
If you work a standard Monday-Friday workweek, with two days off for the holiday, then leaving Wednesday after work and flying home Sunday night might make sense. That’s the schedule most people follow to avoid taking extra time off, and if you join in, then you’ll pay — both in terms of cost and crowds.
Beyond crowds, expect to pay big this year. Sure, average airfares are actually cheaper this year versus last (and are even cheaper this year versus pre-pandemic), with average airfares for the first six months of 2023 down 7.2% versus the same period in 2022, according to a NerdWallet analysis of consumer price index data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
But airfares can still feel incredibly high. That’s for a few reasons, including that basic economy seats have lowered overall prices. But for folks who end up paying a la carte for benefits that were typically included in the past (e.g., checked bags or the ability to select your seat), the total cost can end up sometimes more expensive given all those ancillary fees.
So how can you choose a better Thanksgiving travel itinerary to save money? Avoid the Wednesday-Sunday itinerary and try these travel days instead.
Travel on Thanksgiving Day
Across travel days for the week before and after Thanksgiving, the holiday was the lowest-traffic day every year over the past three years. Book the first flight out for the day — a practice NerdWallet recommends anyway to reduce your odds of a flight delay — and you might even land in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
If you can extend your trip, the Wednesday after Thanksgiving is, on average, the second-emptiest day to travel. Especially if you have the option of remote work, you might be able to avoid taking vacation days, despite the longer trip.
Fly on Black Friday
If you must travel during the weekend, consider having Thanksgiving dinner at your own home, then flying somewhere on Black Friday, which is the third-least crowded day to fly on average.
Look at it as a great way to not only avoid airport crowds but also retail crowds since you won’t be out shopping.
The standard rules around the best (and worst) days to fly don’t necessarily apply. Coupling that with conventional wisdom around saving money on flights, flying for Thanksgiving might not be as painful a proposition as you once thought.