Despite inflation and memories of past holiday travel meltdowns, millions of people are expected to hit airports and highways in record numbers over the Thanksgiving break.
The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen 2.6 million passengers on Tuesday and 2.7 million passengers on Wednesday. Sunday will draw the largest crowds with an estimated 2.9 million passengers, which would narrowly eclipse a record set on June 30.
Meanwhile, AAA forecasts that 2.5 million New Englanders will be in the skies or on the roads between Wednesday and Sunday, with roads likely to be the most clogged on Wednesday.
Nic Longo, aviation director at Patrick Leahy Burlington International Airport, expects about 20,000 travelers this week.
“Throughout this week, we’re going to see higher passenger numbers,” Longo said. “We’re always going to see an increase in the beginning of the week and the weekend.”
The weather could snarl air and road traffic. A storm system was expected to move from the southern Plains to the Northeast on Tuesday and Wednesday, bringing severe thunderstorms, gusty wind and possible snow.
Sarah Ford and Aaron Schulman usually drive to see family for Thanksgiving, giving themselves enough travel time to avoid the busiest days.
But on Monday, they were at BTV preparing to fly to Puerto Rico for the holiday.
“Pretty excited, excited for some warmth, beach, ocean, yeah, gonna do some surfing,” Ford said.
Robin Alman was flying from Burlington to Seattle for Thanksgiving. Altman said getting an early start was the plan all along.
“I was very careful about when I booked my flight because I didn’t want to travel Tuesday or Wednesday,” Altman said. “Glad we’re leaving now.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during a news conference Monday that the government has tried to better prepare for holiday travel over the last year by hiring more air traffic controllers, opening new air routes along the East Coast and providing grants to airports for snowplows and deicing equipment. But he warned travelers to check road conditions and flight times before leaving home.
“Mother Nature, of course, is the X factor in all of this,” he said.
The good news for travelers by plane and car alike: Prices are coming down.
Airfares are averaging $268 per ticket, down 14% from a year ago, according to the travel site Hopper.
Gasoline prices are down about 45 cents a gallon from this time last year. The national average was $3.30 per gallon on Monday, according to AAA, down from $3.67 a year ago.
A survey of GasBuddy users found that despite cheaper pump prices, the number of people planning to take a long driving trip this Thanksgiving hasn’t changed much from last year. Patrick De Haan, an analyst for the price-tracking service, said inflation has cooled but some things like food are still getting more expensive. Consumers are also charging more on credit cards and saving less.
“Sure, they love the falling gas prices, but a lot of Americans spent in other ways this summer and they may not be ready to open their wallets for Thanksgiving travel just yet,” De Haan said.
Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday travel season, and many still haven’t shaken last December’s nightmare before Christmas, when severe winter storms knocked out thousands of flights and left millions of passengers stranded.
Scott Keyes, founder of the travel site Going, is cautiously optimistic that holiday air travel won’t be the same mess. So far this year, he said, airlines have avoided massive disruptions.
“Everyone understands that airlines can’t control Mother Nature and it’s unsafe to take off or land in the middle of a thunderstorm or snowstorm,” Keyes said. “What really irks people are the controllable cancellations — those widespread disruptions because the airline couldn’t get their act together because their system melted down the way Southwest did over Christmas.”