Thanksgiving travel: Your guide to get going — whether by plane, train or automobile

·5 min read

After last year’s pandemic Thanksgiving, many families are excited to come together to give thanks and reunite after a difficult year.

According to a report by the AAA, 53.4 million people plan to travel 50 miles or more by car, plane, train, bus or cruise over the Thanksgiving weekend, a 13% increase from 2020. This volume brings the total number of travelers close to pre-pandemic levels.

And with it, comes the congested airports, packed roads and sold-out trains. This is your comprehensive guide to safe holiday travel this week, whether you’re going out of state or visiting nearby relatives.

Taking to the skies?

Predictably, air travel is spiking this year after relatively low turnouts at airports last year. According to the Chicago Department of Aviation, O’Hare International Airport will likely see an 155% increase in passengers over the course of Thanksgiving week, and Midway will probably have a similar boost, with more than a 100% increase compared with the same time last year.

Almost 1.5 million travelers are expected to pass through the airports between Tuesday and next Monday.

The busiest day at both airports will be Sunday, the Department of Aviation warned, as travelers return home after the holiday weekend. The airports will also be congested Tuesday and Wednesday, the department said.

The department had a couple of tips to make a trip to the airport as seamless as possible. The first is a given — get there early. With the usual security measures and huge volume of passengers, the lines are sure to be long.

The Transportation Security Administration continues to enforce the mask requirement in all airports for everyone over 2-years-old, as well, so make sure you have one handy.

Aviation officials also recommended using the Blue or Orange CTA lines to get to and from the airport instead of cars or ride-share services to avoid the busy curb drop-off areas. Another reason to avoid ride sharing is surge pricing during peak travel hours.

How about a road trip?

Just like the airports, most major cities will see heavy highway congestion this Thanksgiving. According to the report by AAA, drivers in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and New York City will likely experience more than three times the usual delays.

According to AAA’s projection, the worst traffic in Chicago will be seen on west Interstate 290, from Morgan Street to Wolf Road between 2:45 and 4:45 p.m. Wednesday. AAA predicted, in conjunction with INRIX analytics, that traffic congestion could be nearly 330% worse than average.

INRIX and AAA came up with a list of the best and worst time to travel for each day over the holiday week.

The best travel times are as follows:

  • Wednesday after 9 p.m.

  • Thursday before 11 a.m.

  • Friday before 11 a.m.

  • Saturday before noon.

  • Sunday before noon.

The times INRIX advises you avoid traveling if possible due to high volume are as follows:

  • Wednesday noon–8 p.m.

  • Thursday noon–3 p.m.

  • Friday 1—4 p.m.

  • Saturday 2—7 p.m.

  • Sunday 1—7 p.m.

What about a train?

Amtrak is also an option to get you where you need to go this Thanksgiving. According to a statement from Amtrak, ridership has recovered to up to 70% of its normal operations and some trains have even sold-out conditions in the Amtrak Midwest Network, starting last weekend.

Masks are still required on the trains. All the trains are equipped with “onboard filtration systems” that have a fresh air exchange rate of every four to five minutes, according to Amtrak.

You can also see the seat availability on trains while reserving train seats and can switch to less crowded trains after booking with no additional fee, if reservations are made before Jan. 4.

Holiday weather forecast

According to the National Weather Service, the forecast is fairly quiet for the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Other than some snow over Colorado and rain reaching through New Mexico and Arizona, Wednesday shouldn’t bring too many travel hazards across the country.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Thanksgiving Day itself when rain and some snow will shower the Pacific Northwest and a cold front will bring rain up from Texas through the South toward the eastern Great Lakes region.

In Chicago, temperatures will drop into the mid-30s Thursday and Friday with a chance of rain Thanksgiving morning.

The highest chances of rain will be along and southeast of Interstate 55. Most of the precipitation will end “not too long after daybreak” on Thanksgiving, the weather service said.

Some other weather systems may move in over the weekend, meteorologists predicted, but it is unclear if they will bring precipitation with them.

COVID-19 travel tips

It’s also important to remember we are still in a pandemic, and COVID-19 rates are spiking across the country, said Dr. Chris Colbert, assistant program director of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Booster shots are now available for everyone 18 and older across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced, and children age 5 and up are eligible for vaccination. Colbert said vaccinations are key to keeping families safe and hospital admissions low this holiday season.

Wearing a mask indoors is also a good way to stay safe as you travel to different parts of the country. AAA has a map detailing all of the travel and masking restrictions at play in states.

Colbert also recommended regular hand-washing and avoiding crowds. Testing is also a good option, even for vaccinated people, before boarding a plane, train or bus.

Finally, Colbert said, if you are feeling sick, your best bet is to not travel.

“It is best to stay home as not to put anyone else at risk,” Colbert said.

sygoodman@chicagotribune.com