Everything You Need to Know About Holiday Travel in 2021
The holidays are upon us and that means festive decor, special treats, and plenty of people taking to the roads and skies.
This year, Thanksgiving will see numbers that rival pre-pandemic levels, experts told Travel + Leisure. It's a trend that is expected to continue through the December holidays. All that will likely mean higher prices, crowded airports, and even the potential for flight cancellations.
"Last year was the road trip year. We saw a huge increase in travelers booking staycations," Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper, told T+L. "This year, it's going to shift a lot more toward travelers flying because of vaccinations. Travelers feel generally more comfortable."
This is what travelers should know ahead of the busy holiday season, from staying safe amid the pandemic to how to prepare for a flight cancellation.
Will airports and roads be crowded this holiday season?
The short answer is, yes. About 53.4 million Americans are expected to travel for Thanksgiving, according to AAA data shared with T+L. Of those, the overwhelming majority (48.3 million) are expected to drive, with about 4.2 million people slated to fly.
Overall, 2021 Thanksgiving travel numbers are within 5% of what they were in 2019. "People are going all in for Thanksgiving," Ellen Edmonds, a spokeswoman for AAA, told T+L. "Everything that we're seeing is indicating people are returning to travel, and will continue to return to travel."
Hopper predicts Christmas air travel will likely go beyond that, surpassing Thanksgiving numbers.
How busy will the airports be?
About two million travelers are expected to pass through airports in the United States each day over the Christmas holiday, or around 80% of 2019 levels. That is lower than before the pandemic, but not necessarily something the average traveler will notice when they're trying to get through the airport rush, said Damodaran.
"We're ramping up even more… because we now have domestic travel [that] has mostly recovered and international travel is also starting to pick up," he said. "For all intents and purposes, when you're at the airport, it's going to feel like 2019."
For Thanksgiving weekend, the busiest U.S. airport will be Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, followed by Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and Los Angeles International Airport, according to Hopper. Overall, airports will be most crowded the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 24, except for hubs that tend to see more international departures, like New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, which will likely be busiest earlier in the week.
Are most people driving or flying?
The majority of people who plan to travel for Thanksgiving will be driving, according to AAA, but the number of those who are choosing to fly is growing. In 2020, cars accounted for 94.6% of all Thanksgiving travel, but this year, they only account for 90.3%. Whether you're flying or driving, these expert holiday travel tips will help you maximize your time off.
Should travelers expect flight cancellations and delays?
Unfortunately, probably. Widespread flight cancellations have plagued major airlines in recent weeks, including Southwest and American Airlines, due to a combination of bad weather and staffing woes. And experts say that's likely going to continue.
"That's sort of the friction that we expect with demand ramping up so quickly this year. In some ways, it is unprecedented to have to ramp up service so quickly," said Damodaran. "I would expect [cancellations] to happen occasionally, especially on a busy travel weekend, but it's hard to predict when those occurrences could happen."
So, should you book a backup flight?
No. A new concept called "trip stacking" has emerged this year in which travelers book multiple trips or flights for the same time period in case one gets canceled or needs to be postponed. But when it comes to flights, experts told T+L they don't recommend it.
Edmonds said it's a risky move that could end up costing customers a non-refundable ticket, and may even be flagged by the airline since many carriers have systems in place to spot duplicate bookings. Instead, she said the best way to protect a trip is to invest in travel insurance.
For its part, Hopper offers customers the option of adding on a "flight rebooking guarantee," which costs $24 on average and allows customers to book a new flight to their destination on any airline if theirs is canceled or delayed by more than one hour.
With more people traveling, does that mean things will be more expensive?
Simply put, yes. When it comes to rental car prices, for example, the daily rate has increased about 4% compared to Thanksgiving last year, and is coming in at $98 per day on average, Edmonds said. That's mostly due to demand, but there is hope: "The sooner you can lock in a rate, whether it's a rental car, flight, or hotel, you'll get a better [price]," she added.
For flights, domestic prices for Christmas are averaging about $390 round-trip, fairly on par with Christmas airfare in 2019, according to Hopper. But travelers can still get a deal on international flights, with prices coming in at about 25% less than the same time in 2019. You can find more holiday travel hacks here.
How safe will travel be?
Damodaran pointed to a number of factors that are making travelers feel safer this year compared to last, including availability of vaccines and experience with things like wearing marks. A federal mask mandate has been extended until at least January 2022 for all public transportation, including on planes, buses, and trans, as well as in airports.
"I think it will be business as usual in terms of most travelers knowing what they have to do," he said. "I hope travelers will be as patient as possible and abide by the federal regulations."
Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.