TSA Ranks Busiest Travel Days Around Winter Holidays

Use this agency data covering the past three years to determine which days around Thanksgiving and Christmas to book flights.

Crowded Airport Busy Travel Days
Photo Credit: Oleksii Nykonchuk for Adobe Stock

Most weeks of the year, Fridays are the busiest days to fly, and Tuesdays are the least busy. These parameters don't usually apply during the holidays.

In most years, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is actually the busiest travel day for U.S. airports, according to the Transportation Security Administration, which tracks the numbers of passengers screened daily. Two days before Christmas and one day before Thanksgiving also tend to draw big airport crowds.

Here's a breakdown of the best and worst days to fly during the winter holidays, and how you can strategize schedules to avoid the largest crowds — and potentially save money.

The Busiest Days to Fly Around Thanksgiving

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is brutal for airport crowds. For every 100 people who flew on Thanksgiving Day 2021, there were 177 people flying out on the Sunday after, according to the TSA.

That same Sunday was the year's single busiest airport travel day in both 2019 and 2021. In 2020, the busiest days were largely concentrated in January and February, before the widespread impact of Covid-19, which of course reduced holiday travel later in the year.

Here's a look at the days surrounding Thanksgiving week, using data from the past three years, ranked in order of most to fewest air travelers at the TSA's U.S. checkpoints:

  • Sunday after Thanksgiving (most crowded)
  • Wednesday before
  • Saturday after
  • Friday before
  • Monday after (Cyber Monday)
  • Sunday before
  • Tuesday before
  • Monday before
  • Saturday before
  • Tuesday after (Giving Tuesday)
  • Friday after (Black Friday)
  • Wednesday after
  • Thanksgiving Day (least crowded)

Assuming past trends continue in 2022, expect Sunday, Nov. 27, to be the busiest travel day around Thanksgiving, followed by Wednesday, Nov. 23. Saturday, Nov. 26, will also likely be busy.

What's more, this year's crowds will likely be bigger than they were over the past couple of years. "Thanksgiving travel volumes are looking similar to what we typically saw prepandemic in 2019," noted Hayley Berg, lead economist at travel booking app Hopper.

The Busiest Days to Fly Around Christmas

Christmas airport crowds can be trickier to predict than Thanksgiving crowds, given that the holiday falls on a different day of the week each year and that air-travel patterns are often dictated by the workweek.

But just as the Sunday after Thanksgiving tends to draw huge crowds, the days just after Christmas are wildly popular. And much like how fewer people travel on Thanksgiving Day itself, relatively few people tend to travel on Christmas Day or New Year's Day.

Here's a look at Christmas and the seven calendar dates before and after over the past three years, ranked by most to fewest average air travelers, based on TSA checkpoint data:

  • Dec. 27 (most crowded)
  • Dec. 23
  • Dec. 20
  • Dec. 26
  • Dec. 30
  • Dec. 19
  • Dec. 29
  • Dec. 22
  • Dec. 28
  • Dec 21
  • Dec. 18
  • Jan. 1 (New Year's Day)
  • Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve)
  • Dec. 31 (New Year's Eve)
  • Dec. 25 (Christmas Day) (least crowded)

Hanukkah, which each year begins on the 25th of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, aligns closely with Christmas this year. While the eight-day celebration sometimes happens in November or early December, it begins this year on Dec. 18 and runs through Dec. 26.

The weeklong celebration of Kwanzaa runs from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. Thus, travelers during that period might be celebrating more than just Christmas, potentially concentrating more holiday crowds in airports than in other years.

Also note that one of the busiest travel days of the year, Dec. 23, happens to fall on a Friday this year. Dec. 23 is not an official holiday, but many holiday travelers may leave on that day.

Holiday-Season Travel Tips

Traveling on the holiday itself is often the best way to avoid crowds. Taking early flights is also considered good practice; in the first eight months of 2022, 7.3 percent of flights were delayed because an aircraft arrived late, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.

Travelers can save an average of 15 percent by departing the first half of the week instead of the Thursday or Friday before Christmas this year, according to flight data from travel search engine Expedia. Average ticket prices for departures on the Monday before Thanksgiving are 15 percent cheaper than Wednesday departures, Expedia also found.

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Sally French is a writer at NerdWallet.