Best and worst days, times to travel during the Christmas holiday
By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
The holidays are one of the busiest times for travel and this year Americans are traveling in record numbers.
AAA forecasts 107.3 million Americans will take to planes, trains, automobiles and other modes of transportation during the year-end holiday period from Saturday, Dec. 23, through Monday, Jan. 1. This will be the highest year-end travel volume on record, with a 3.1 percent increase in travel volume compared to last year.
Since 2005, total year-end holiday travel volume has grown by 21.6 million, an increase of more than 25 percent.
Airfare and hotel rates are trending cheaper, while car rentals and gas rates are more expensive this year.
“More expensive gas prices are not swaying holiday revelers to stay home,” said Bill Sutherland, AAA senior vice president, travel and publishing.
For the 97.4 million Americans traveling by automobile, INRIX, a global transportation analytics company, in collaboration with AAA, predicts travel times during the holiday week could be as much as three times longer than the normal trip.
“In fact, across the board this year, travel has increased year-over-year for every major holiday weekend – Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving – and we project the same for the year-end holiday period. We’ve seen the strong economy and growing consumer confidence fuel holiday travel all year long,” Sutherland said.
Late-afternoon hours to cause congestion
Based on historical and recent travel trends, INRIX expects drivers will experience the greatest amount of congestion before the holiday week – on Wednesday, Dec. 20, and Thursday, Dec. 21 – in the late afternoon as commuters leave work early and mix with holiday travelers.
“With record-level travelers hitting the road this holiday, drivers must be prepared for delays in major metros,” says Dr. Graham Cookson, chief economist and head of research at INRIX.
“Our advice to drivers is to avoid peak times altogether or consider alternative routes,” Cookson said.
It's best to avoid traveling through major cities during peak travel times. The recommended times to leave are typically early morning or after the morning commute because the roads should be less crowded and you will have more time to get to your destination safely.
"With Christmas and New Year's falling on Mondays, we expect traffic congestion between the two to be limited as it will be spread out over the road network," INRIX Spokesperson Mark Burfeind said.
If your schedule permits, travel on the holiday because fewer cars will be on the road.
Factor weather conditions into your travel plans
This time of year, motorists and airline passengers should be aware of potential weather delays.
Make sure to check the status of your flight regularly before traveling to the airport.
"Travelers should plan to arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to the scheduled departure of their flight. It may be necessary to arrive even earlier," AAA spokesperson Jeanette Casselano said.
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According to Kayak, flights are cheaper on Christmas Day, so flying on the holiday may help to avoid the lines and save money.
If you are driving to your destination, the upcoming mild weather pattern will not last long, so it is also important to factor weather into your travel plans.
"For some areas north of Interstate 80, the mild spell early next week may bring the only multiple-day stretch of above-freezing temperatures through Christmas," according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Eric Leister.
Even colder air is projected to push southward over the Central states late next week then ooze into the Northeast toward the weekend before Christmas Day. The battle zone between colder air plunging across these areas and milder air to the south will create a corridor for storms to travel along.
Before hitting the road, make sure your vehicle is ready for wintry conditions. Monitor tire pressure, test the battery, replace windshield wipers and make sure all headlights and brake lights are in working condition.
In case of an emergency, be prepared by keeping a cell phone and charger with you at all times. Carry an emergency kit with a flashlight, jumper cables, a first-aid kit, sleeping bags, gloves, a battery-powered radio and extra water.
The complete AAA/IHS Markit 2017 year-end holiday travel forecast is available here.
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