AAA predicts busiest Thanksgiving travel season in years: Here’s when NOT to drive

(NEXSTAR) – Thanksgiving 2023 is already shaping up to be an especially frustrating one for lots of Americans, and that’s before they find out the stuffing has raisins in it.

This year, AAA predicts that approximately 55.4 million Americans will be traveling at least 50 miles to get to Thanksgiving dinner, the vast majority of whom — 49.13 million — will be taking the journey by car, according to the organization’s latest projections. That would make it the busiest Thanksgiving travel season since 2019, and the third-busiest (after 2005 and 2019) since AAA started posting its forecasts in 2000.

With millions of motorists sharing the country’s busiest travel corridors in the days around Thanksgiving, it’s inevitable that many will get stuck in traffic for at least a portion of the trip. But drivers can reduce their chances of frustrating delays with a bit of forethought and flexibility, according to AAA.

AAA used data from INRIX, an analytics firm specializing in transportation, to determine which travel periods were projected to be the most and least congested between Wednesday, Nov. 22 and Sunday, Nov. 26.

The biggest takeaway? Drivers should get on the roads as early as they can.

For each day from Nov. 22 to Nov. 26, INRIX found that congestion generally tended to worsen in the afternoon. On Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, the worst travel times actually begin peaking several hours earlier:

‘Worst’ times to drive, according to AAA/INRIX (all times local):

  • Wednesday, Nov. 22: 2:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
  • Thursday, Nov. 23: 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
  • Friday, Nov. 24: 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 25: 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
  • Sunday, Nov. 26: 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Furthermore, the absolute worst time for congestion throughout the entire holiday weekend is the very first “worst” travel window on Wednesday, Nov. 22 (2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.), according to INRIX.

If possible, the data suggests, drivers should be leaving home during more traffic-friendly hours, which generally occur earlier in the day or much later in the evening.

‘Best’ times to drive, according to AAA/INRIX (all times local):

  • Wednesday, Nov. 22: Before 11 a.m.
  • Thursday, Nov. 23: Before 10 a.m., or after 5 p.m.
  • Friday, Nov. 24: Before 11:00 a.m., or after 7:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 25: Before 12:00 p.m.
  • Sunday, Nov. 26: Before 12:00 p.m.

It’s worth noting that the travel windows mentioned above are thought to be the “best” and “worst” for U.S. drivers overall, but peak congestion fluctuates from city to city. For instance, the San Francisco area’s peak congestion period is expected Sunday at 7 p.m., on the northbound side of the Santa Cruz Highway between Monterey and San Francisco, according to INRIX. But in Denver, peak congestion is expected on Friday around 5:45 p.m., between Fort Collins and Denver on I-25 South.

AAA’s data indicates that Thanksgiving travel is only getting busier by the year, too. Since 2017, AAA records show that at least 50 million people had been projected to travel during each Thanksgiving season — a milestone previously matched only in 2005 and 2007, according to AAA records. (AAA attributes the 2005 and 2007 travel booms to post-9/11, pre-recession travel trends.)

And who knows? Thanksgiving travel may only get busier and busier in coming years — especially if those raisins stay the heck away from the stuffing.

“We don’t see signs of it slowing down,” a representative for AAA told Nexstar of the Thanksgiving travel trends.

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