Dec 11, 2023 - Business

Holiday travel period will be one of busiest ever, AAA says

Illustration of a locator icon as an ornament.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Brace yourself for busy airports and highways during the Christmas and New Year's holiday travel period, according to new AAA projections.

Why it matters: The forecast rounds off a year when holiday travel records were set around July Fourth and Thanksgiving.

The big picture: AAA said in its holiday forecast Monday that it projects 115.2 million travelers will hit the road or take flight during the 10-day holiday travel period that begins Dec. 23.

  • That's a 2.2% increase over last year or 2.5 million more travelers, AAA projects.
  • It's the second-highest year-end travel forecast since AAA began tracking holiday travel in 2000.
  • 2019 was the busiest Christmas and New Year's travel period on record with 119 million total travelers.

Flashback: Last year, flight delays and cancellations wreaked havoc on holiday travel between the major winter storm and Southwest Airlines meltdown.

By the numbers: This year, 7.51 million travelers are expected to travel by air, AAA's highest projection and more than the 2019 record of 7.33 million.

  • 103.6 million are expected to drive 50 miles or more, 1.8% more than last year but down from the 2019 record of 108 million.
  • 4.05 million will travel by other modes like bus, train and cruise, which is projected to break 2019's record of 3.89 million.

What they're saying: "More Americans are investing in travel, despite the cost, to make memories with loved ones and experience new places," said Paula Twidale, AAA Travel senior vice president, in a statement.

Travel advisory: Best and worst times to drive

Zoom in: Prepare for a few days of "potentially bad traffic" during the travel period, according to INRIX, a provider of transportation data and insights.

  • Saturday, Dec. 23 and Thursday, Dec. 28 are the most congested days on the road, INRIX said in the AAA's forecast.
  • The worst time on Dec. 23 is from 11am to 7pm and from 2 to 8pm Dec. 28.
  • Saturday, Dec. 30 is another busy day with many traveling home or to a destination for New Year's Eve. The worst time that day is 5 to 7pm.

Of note: The best travel time on Dec. 23 is before 10 am and before noon Dec. 26-30.

Meanwhile, "minimal traffic impact" is expected on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

Holiday travel congestion by metro

Threat level: Drivers could find 20% longer travel times nationwide, INRIX transportation analyst Bob Pishue said.

  • Major metros including Denver, Minneapolis, and D.C. could experience nearly double the typical delays, Pishue said.

Details: Here is the peak congestion period for major metros and on which route from INRIX data:

  • Atlanta: Monday, Dec. 30, 7:15pm; Augusta to Atlanta via I-20 W
  • Boston: Saturday, Dec. 23, 4:15pm; Boston to Portsmouth via I-95 N
  • Chicago: Thursday, Dec. 28, 5:30pm; Milwaukee to Chicago via I-94 E
  • Denver: Friday, Dec. 29, 2pm; Fort Collins to Denver via I-25 S
  • Detroit: Saturday, Dec. 23, 6:45pm; Detroit to Cleveland via I-75 S
  • Houston: Saturday, Dec. 23, 5:15pm; Houston to Galveston via I-45 S
  • Los Angeles: Wednesday, Dec. 27, 6:15pm; Bakersfield to Los Angeles via I-5 S
  • Minneapolis: Thursday, Dec. 28, 10:15am; Eau Claire to Minneapolis via I-94 W
  • New York: Saturday, Dec. 23, 2:30pm; New York to Hamptons via Long Island Expy E
  • Portland: Saturday, Dec. 23, 5:45pm; Portland to Hood River via I-84 E
  • San Diego: Saturday, Dec. 23, 5pm; San Diego to Palm Springs via I-15 N
  • San Francisco: Saturday, Dec. 23, 5:15pm; San Francisco to Sacramento via I-80 E
  • Seattle: Wednesday, Dec. 27, 6:45pm; Seattle to Bellingham via I-5 N
  • Tampa: Tuesday, Dec. 26, 4:15pm; Tampa to Orlando via I-4 E
  • Washington, DC: Friday, Dec.29, 3:45pm; Baltimore to Washington DC via Balt/Wash Pkwy S

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