Be Thankful for Less Traffic: How to Make Thanksgiving Travel Less Painful


thanksgiving travel
6 min read

Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and to celebrate, we’ll travel near and far to cook and eat and laugh and maybe argue and drink and eat some more. And given this year’s expected transportation trends, 2016 in particular might just make everyone feel like they’re making a pilgrimage.

Travel this Thanksgiving promises to be particularly nightmarish:

  • 48.7 million people are expected to travel (by car, bus, train, and plane) more than 50 miles from home during the Thanksgiving holiday period, defined as the Wednesday before through the Sunday after Thanksgiving day, says AAA
  • 2016 year will mark an 11-year travel-high, with 1 million more people leaving home this year than last
  • More than 89% of travelers are expected to travel by car this year, meaning 43.5 million Americans will embark on a road trip at nearly the same time

Yikes.

Not exactly the kind of holiday closeness you were hoping for? Don’t worry. We’ve examined traffic patterns and sifted through expert advice to bring you a Thanksgiving holiday car travel guide to ease the madness.

gridlock cars during thanksgiving travel

The Problem: Which Days Are Best for Thanksgiving Travel?

The old standby for Thanksgiving car travel advice has always been to avoid Wednesday and Sunday, but now more and more people are privy to the alternative travel times. Traffic for the past few years appears almost evenly split between Wednesday and Thursday (for departure) and between Saturday and Sunday (for return). In 2012, 45% of Thanksgiving travelers departed on Wednesday and 36% returned on Sunday. In 2013, 37% of left on Wednesday and 33% returned Sunday. This leaves us without a mandate for which day to travel.

The Fix:

Our Thanksgiving travel hack takes a little more precision than choosing a day, but it’ll help you avoid the worst traffic. (Data from Google Maps, which aggregated 2015 travel data from more than 30 major cities around the country from the Sunday before until the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and Waze’s 2014 Thanksgiving holiday period data):

  • Sunday: The Sunday before the holiday is the best day to depart, and 6:00 a.m. is the best time. Traffic will be at its worst at 3:00 p.m., so avoid traveling then.
  • Monday: Traffic will be heavier, but will follow the same patterns as regular weekday rush hour traffic, so midday is the best time to travel.
  • Tuesday: Peak traffic is likely to be between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
  • Wednesday: This is the worst possible day to travel, but if you must, leave by 7:00 a.m. at the latest. Traffic starts to pick up at 11:00 a.m., and peaks between 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
  • Thursday: Traffic patterns are expected to be similar to a regular weekend day.
  • Friday: Despite the Black Friday rush, this is the best day to return home. Traffic patterns have historically been similar to a weekend day. Leave at 6:00 a.m. for the smoothest trip and don’t travel at or around 4:00 p.m. (unless you like gridlock).
  • Saturday: The worst day to return is Saturday, says Google Maps, but if you leave by 6:00 a.m. and plan to be home before 4:00 p.m. your pain will be lessened.
  • Sunday: The entire day’s traffic will be above average, says Waze, but peak gridlock will be between 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

You’ll still need to allow for extra time no matter when you leave, but the above guidelines will hopefully mean traffic is as light as possible.

thanksgiving traffic

It’s Not Just Traffic That Sucks – Car Crashes Spike This Week

If you’re looking for another reason besides traffic to avoid peak travel times this Thanksgiving holiday, let us present the stats for the holiday’s worst days to travel by car  (data from Waze and Progressive):

  • “Blackout Wednesday”: 62% increase in crashes, 38.6% increase in police alerts, 31.3% increase in hazards
  • Thanksgiving: Crashes increased 20% in 2015
  • Black Friday: Crashes increased 34% in 2015
  • Sunday: 323% increase in traffic jams, 112% increase in crashes, 79.8% increase in hazards and 100.2% increase in police alerts, this is also the day with the highest number of out-of-state crashes during the entire Thanksgiving holiday

The Problem: Drunk Driving

For many Americans, the Thanksgiving holiday period kicks off a season of cheer as many important religious and secular holidays fall between now and the end of the year. Unfortunately, however, Thanksgiving also kicks off the most dangerous season for drunk driving.

Thanksgiving Eve, dubiously referred to as Blackout Wednesday by police departments around the country, is arguably one of the most dangerous times of the year to be on the road: it’s widely believed to be the busiest day of the year for bars, and DUI arrests are at the year’s highest between Thanksgiving Eve and New Year’s Day. Not only that, but traffic deaths over the Thanksgiving holiday period (Wednesday to Friday) account for more than 400 traffic deaths each year, compared to an average of fewer than 100 deaths per day.

Other days throughout the year with high traffic-related fatalities and DUIs:

  • Memorial Day: More than 400 traffic deaths
  • July 4th: Currently the day with the highest number of traffic deaths – in recent years upwards of 500
  • Labor Day: More than 400 traffic deaths

New Year’s Day, Super Bowl Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Halloween, and Christmas Day are also peak days for DUIs and traffic deaths.

The Fix:

Plan ahead. Really, it saves lives. Entering into the Thanksgiving holiday period knowing how you’ll get home from a night out increases your chances of doing so safely.

If you plan to drink during the Thanksgiving holiday, designate a driver, use public transportation, plan to call a cab or use a rideshare, or plan to have a friend or family member drop you off and pick you up. And if you’re being a responsible driver during the holiday, keep in mind that not everyone else will be, and use extra caution.  

The recommendations might seem old-hat, but they work. If you plan to drink, you cannot also plan to drive. It’s a losing game anyway you look at it.

And finally, from all of us at The Zebra: have a happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday!