The safest days to travel this Thanksgiving if you want to avoid crowds

With coronavirus cases rising again in the United States, this Thanksgiving is likely to be different from others — especially as health experts such as Anthony S. Fauci remind Americans about the risks of indoor gatherings and household mixing.

Flight-booking search engines show that while the wave of travelers will be half the size it was pre-pandemic, there are a few travel days to avoid if you don’t want to get caught up in a bottleneck, especially as a rising number of travelers continue to return to the skies.

“Avoiding the busiest travel days has always been a priority around Thanksgiving, but this year there is an added impetus for that,” Liana Corwin, consumer travel expert at booking app Hopper, said.

Corwin says that Hopper has found more travelers than usual are considering an “extended stay, traveling further ahead of Thanksgiving and [returning] well after” because the coronavirus. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any airport crowds.

Here are the safest days to travel this Thanksgiving, as well as other tools and tips to consider if you need to fly for the holiday.

The most-searched Thanksgiving travel days

Flights data from travel search engine Kayak suggests that the Wednesday (Nov. 25) before the holiday and the following Sunday (Nov. 29) are again among those projected to experience a rush on airports.

A spokesperson for Google Flights also said that Google search data has so far signaled that Wednesday to be the top Thanksgiving travel day. Kayak calls the return-heavy Sunday (Nov. 29) the busiest day.

“The busiest travel day is expected to be the Sunday following Thanksgiving with over 15 percent of the share of domestic flight searches for travel” around the holiday, a spokesperson for Kayak told The Washington Post in an email. Kayak also says flight searches are down 60 percent this year.

But flight-search data from the travel app Hopper shows that its user searches for the holiday period peak on the Saturday (Nov. 21) before Thanksgiving this year instead. The second most-searched day before Thanksgiving, Hopper says, is that traditionally busiest Wednesday before the holiday.

This suggests that both the Saturday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving could be banner days for travel crowds, in addition to the Sunday after Thanksgiving being the most popular return day. If you’re hoping to avoid a crowded flight, avoid those days.

Travelers are less likely to be booking flights for the Monday (Nov. 23) and Tuesday (Nov. 24) before Thanksgiving, according the booking sites, making those the best days to fly. Hopper estimates that the Sunday (Nov. 22) before Thanksgiving will be half as popular as that Saturday, making it another good option if you can’t fly on a weekday.

The Sunday following Thanksgiving is usually the busiest return day because travelers want to get home before the following workweek begins. The exception to that rule could be the Saturday prior as travelers loosen their travel window to fit in more time in case of delays or coronavirus-related hurdles.

“A lot of us do have more flexibility than we ever have before” when it comes to where we can work from, Corwin says, so extended travel is more of an option.

Remember airlines could consolidate flights this year

But once flights are booked for those less-popular dates, experts say that as airlines are still struggling to fill flights, there is the potential your flight could get canceled and consolidated onto another, fuller departure.

Official Aviation Guide (OAG), a database that tracks live flight schedules and online travel bookings, shows that to compensate for decreased bookings, airlines have been reducing flights every few weeks.

According to OAG’s Chief Analyst, John Grant, the most recently available data shows that November and December 2020 bookings are down as much as 84 percent on American Airlines, 94 percent on Delta Air Lines and 81 percent on United Airlines, compared to the same period last year.

“There’s a lot more anxiety this year over consolidation [of flights] than there has been in years past, but when it comes to airlines, they’re handling their flight schedules in a very similar way they did in years past,” Hopper’s Corwin said. If there’s an increase in demand, most airlines will increase flights, and if they cancel flights, they aim to let passengers know well in advance.

Corwin notes that more obscure routes, like those connecting smaller cities, have seen more changes than routes between major cities, but airlines are “doing their best to service the demand as more people want to start booking for the holidays.”

New tools to avoid Thanksgiving travel disaster

Due to that uncertainty associated with air travel these days, Kayak and Hopper have created new online tools for travelers looking to monitor, and potentially head off delays in, their flight situation.

Kayak has updated its search feature to allow travelers to view map-based air travel conditions like active coronavirus cases, route availability (searchers can check how impacted their flight route is and when the next departure date is) and current travel restrictions (if you’ll need to self-quarantine or get tested).

Hopper has launched a flexibility option that enables travelers who pay a $15-$25 fee to be rebooked on the next flight out, on any airline, if their flight is canceled or consolidated. That flexibility means you will not be restricted to a credit for your airline’s potentially limited flight availability.

According to OAG, airlines cancel flights at varying advances of their travel dates, with some carriers being better than others about giving travelers ample notice. OAG’s Grant said passengers should “consider the airlines offering the most notice,” which include Delta and Southwest.

OAG data shows that Delta makes its schedule changes earliest, at six weeks out. Southwest is the second earliest re-scheduler, with changes coming five weeks out. American and JetBlue make schedules four weeks in advance, and United is the most-last-minute carrier, making changes at three weeks out.

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