The Most Popular Travel Days for the Holidays in 2020

Here’s what to expect for Thanksgiving and Christmas travel this year.

While the travel industry is certainly rebounding from its lowest point during the pandemic, there’s no doubt that travel is very, very different now than it was during pre-COVID times. The number of passengers flying daily in the United States is growing, but we’re still only seeing about 40% of total traffic as compared to 2019, per the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). And beyond that, airlines still are operating with reduced schedules. So naturally, the craziness of holiday travel might look a little different than it has in years past. Here’s what you can expect.

How Holiday Travel Will Be Different This Year

As of Oct. 5, online travel agency Kayak reported that domestic flight searches were down 81% and hotel searches were down 74% compared to last year. But that doesn’t mean people won’t be traveling. Kayak suspects that holiday travelers will wait until the last minute to book any trips, which is exactly what happened with summer travel.

Trips are also much more likely to be domestic rather than international. “Far fewer Americans will be headed overseas, with only a handful of destinations willing to accept U.S. residents,” Zach Honig, travel analyst and editor-at-large at The Points Guy, told Travel + Leisure. As for domestic trips, he thinks Hawaii might be popular if it reopens successfully in the coming weeks, while ski resorts could also continue to see bookings.

It’s possible that the duration of holiday trips will change, too. “It's very likely that a larger share of holiday travelers will take longer trips and work remotely from their vacation destinations,” Ben Harrell, chief marketing officer at online travel agency Priceline, told T+L.

crowds in Honolulu International Airport
Kent Nishimura/Getty

Most Popular Travel Days for Thanksgiving in 2020

While travel might look different overall, the busiest travel days around Thanksgiving are likely to remain the same. According to Priceline data, the most popular departure date for Thanksgiving weekend in 2019 was the preceding Wednesday, with most travelers returning the following Sunday. In 2020, Priceline reports that most bookings have a departure on Wednesday, Nov. 25 — of those bookings, 36% have booked a return on Sunday, Nov. 29.

Most Popular Travel Days for Christmas in 2020

As with Thanksgiving, Christmas travel remains relatively the same in terms of timing, though the specifics are dictated by the day of the week on which Christmas falls. “When looking at Christmas travel in 2019, the most popular departure date for a round-trip ticket was Monday, Dec. 23. For flights departing that day, 16% returned that Friday, Dec. 27, and 16% returned the following Monday, Dec. 30,” says Harrell. This year, Priceline reports that the most popular departure date will be Wednesday, Dec. 23, with 22% of those travelers returning on Monday, Dec. 28, and 20% returning on Sunday, Dec. 27.

Tips for Holiday Travel This Year

If you do travel for the holidays, you might not experience the large crowds that you’d normally see, but you can still expect traditionally busy travel days to be, well, pretty busy. Just stick to all the standard travel protocols: Wear a mask, wash your hands regularly, and stay socially distanced.

As far as tips for booking holiday travel, you might not want to wait too much longer — prices could go up as the demand increases. “If you’re thinking about getting some sun or hitting the slopes during Thanksgiving or Christmas weeks, I’d lock in those plans sooner than later,” says Honig. “Consider booking hotel stays with points and flights with miles, so it’ll be easier to collect a refund if things don’t go to plan.”

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