These Will Be the Busiest Travel Days of the 2021 Holiday Season

As many Americans continue to work from home, the holiday travel schedule is going to look a little different this year.

Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.

While the travel industry is certainly rebounding from its lowest point during the pandemic, things are getting a little dicey with all the COVID-19 variants out there. This summer, it seemed as if travel was almost back to normal, but with new restrictions in place both at home and abroad, it's possible that the numbers of travelers hitting the road (or the skies) might slow down a little bit once again as we head into the holiday season. But many travelers are determined to continue with their vacations. According to a survey of more than 5,000 travelers by vacation rental site Evolve, 32 percent of travelers are not factoring the Delta variant into their travel plans at all, and of the travelers who are, 46.5 percent won't consider canceling their plans because of it "until much closer to the trip dates." If you're planning on traveling for the holidays this year, here's what you can expect.

so many airplanes are in line on the runway waiting for take off
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How Holiday Travel Will Be Different in 2021

Despite numbers still being a bit lower than they were before the pandemic, demand is rebounding, especially regarding air travel. "We're already seeing significant momentum around international and domestic flight searches when compared to 2020, up 155 percent and 212 percent, respectively," says Matt Clarke, the VP of marketing at online travel agency, Kayak. "When compared to 2019, however, both international and domestic flight searches are down, 52 percent and 43 percent, respectively."

But unlike in the pre-pandemic era, when Americans would book holiday flights weeks if not months in advance, Clarke suspects folks are sitting tight as they monitor travel restrictions, waiting until the holidays approach to purchase tickets. "The trend for last-minute bookings is strong," he says.

This wait-and-see mentality is especially true for international travel, and for good reason; Europe just designated the U.S. a high-risk country, prompting some countries like the Netherlands to reinstate quarantines for American travelers. It remains to be seen if those restrictions will be lifted in time for Christmas, a traditionally popular period for overseas travel.

As such, you can expect a surge in domestic travel in the coming months — something Kayak has already seen in the car rental industry. "The demand for car rentals in the U.S. this holiday season is already up 229 percent compared to 2019 and up 244 percent compared to 2020, an indicator that we could experience another car rental shortage this holiday season as we're seeing an increase in those searching further in advance for car rentals than years prior," says Clarke.

Aerial view of a highway with traffic
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Most Popular Travel Days for Thanksgiving in 2021

Interestingly, the busiest travel days didn't change between 2019 and 2020. According to Priceline data, the most popular departure date for Thanksgiving weekend in 2019 and 2020 was the preceding Wednesday, with most travelers returning the following Sunday in both years. The only difference was the number of travelers: In 2019, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), logged 2.6 million travelers passing through security checkpoints at airports that Wednesday, while in 2020, it only logged one million passengers that same day.

But as of September 9, 2021, this year is looking different. Priceline reports that the busiest travel day for the Thanksgiving holiday is Monday, November 15, while the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the second busiest. It's likely that after 18 months of remote work, Americans are finally getting accustomed to the idea of working from anywhere, allowing them to travel more freely.

Crowd of people on railroad station lobby or airport
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Most Popular Travel Days for Christmas in 2021

Winter holiday travel is slightly more complicated, as the popular travel days are dictated by the day of the week on which Christmas falls. Most often, December 23 is the busiest travel day preceding Christmas, while on the other side of the holiday, the Sunday after Christmas is the busiest travel day. According to Kayak data, that trend held in 2020, but in 2021, those dates are changing slightly. As of September 9, 2021, the most popular travel day before Christmas is Wednesday, December 22, and the most popular travel day after Christmas is Tuesday, December 28. Again, travelers are likely taking advantage of work-from-home policies to travel more flexibly.

When to Book Holiday Travel in 2021

Though some travelers might be hesitant to book travel early given the uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 variants, experts suggest taking advantage of the flexible cancellation policies offered by travel companies, as prices are only going to rise as the holidays approach.

Stefanie Waldek is a freelance space, travel, and design journalist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @stefaniewaldek.

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