5 Thanksgiving travel pitfalls and how to deal with them

Turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing are waiting. But first, you have to get to them.

For the millions of travelers expected to fly, drive or otherwise journey for the holiday next week - 13% more than last year, according to AAA - several roadblocks loom. Roads will be packed, airport lines will be crowded, and stormy weather could snarl it all.

On top of it all, there is still a pandemic to worry about. Over the past seven days, new coronavirus cases have risen 31% in the United States.

We gathered advice from experts on the best way to brave the airports, roads and elements - all while staying as safe as possible.

Crowded airports

Regardless of their habits the rest of the year, travelers should get to the airport early for Thanksgiving-week flights. The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen about 20 million travelers during the holiday period, which lasts from Friday until Nov. 28.

“If you’re flying out of some of the biggest airports in the country, get to the airport two hours early,” said Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokeswoman. “We’re going to see congested airports again, many of them very, very close to pre-pandemic levels.”

For international flights, three hours ahead is a safer window.


The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said to remind people to bring all the documents they need for their destination; this year, that could include proof of a negative coronavirus test and a vaccination card, as well as the standard identification and boarding pass.

But travelers should leave behind - or put in checked bags - anything that isn’t allowed in a carry-on bag, to avoid the extra screening time. That includes oversize liquids, gels, aerosols and certain holiday foods. Farbstein said anything you can smear or spread, such as cranberry sauce, gravy or mashed potatoes, needs to go in a checked bag. Same rule goes for canned vegetables because of the liquid in the can.

A frozen turkey or homemade baked goods, on the other hand, can fly in the cabin.

“Carving knife: please put it in your checked bag,” Farbstein said.

Traffic jams

Don’t leave when just about everyone else is leaving, which is expected to be Wednesday afternoon. Unlike pre-pandemic times, travelers who have the flexibility to work remotely might beat the worst of the traffic tie-ups by leaving several days in advance and working from their destination. More than 48 million people are expected to travel by car for the holiday, according to AAA.

“We strongly recommend leaving, if you can, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving,” said AAA spokeswoman Ellen Edmonds. “If not, early morning Wednesday is best.”

She said even Thanksgiving Day itself should have lighter travel than Wednesday, if the trip isn’t too far.

“Anything you can do to make your travel easier - and if that’s leaving a few days earlier if you’re able to, whether that’s flying or driving - we really recommend that,” she said.

Messy weather

Jonathan Porter, chief meteorologist at AccuWeather, cautioned about a “variety of impacts that are going to be poorly timed with the onset of Thanksgiving travel.” Those are especially likely in the Great Lakes states and Northeast, with rain and gusty winds possible starting Sunday and Monday.

“Those gusty winds can be a factor for travel, especially for air travel,” he said. And as travelers have seen earlier this year, bad weather can lead to cascading problems when short-staffed airlines try to get back to normal.

“That can quickly have a ripple effect in terms of delays and cancellations in other parts of the country as well,” he said.

He said travelers should be “extra aware” of the forecast and possibly change their driving plans to avoid the worst of any coming weather.

Air passengers should consider bringing only carry-on bags in case of cancellations so they won’t be separated from their luggage. As they suffered through mass cancellations earlier this year, travelers learned to book flights with some spare time if they are headed to big events, always fly direct, and hustle to find alternative flights if their original plans get scrapped.

For anyone who must drive in bad weather, AAA recommends keeping the car windshield clean, making sure tires are properly inflated, slowing down during the drive and increasing the distance between the car in front. Avoid cruise control, the group says, to stay alert and respond quickly if the car loses traction.

If a car starts to hydroplane, don’t slam the brakes. Ease off the accelerator to gradually slow down until the tires get traction again, and keep looking and steering in the direction you want to go.

Coronavirus concerns

Anyone flying, taking a train or traveling on other public transportation needs to wear a mask by federal mandate. The flight attendants union suggests packing an extra one.

Flight attendants say air passengers should “dip and sip” when eating or drinking - or lower their mask briefly for a sip or bite, then quickly put it back.


If possible, pack a rapid home coronavirus test or two, especially if a trip involves visiting someone who is immunocompromised - but don’t wait until the last minute to find one, because there’s a shortage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the safest way to get together is for every eligible person to be vaccinated. For everyone, gathering outdoors is still safer than indoors.

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Higher prices

This one is hard to avoid: Consumer prices are up across the board, and the price of gas has skyrocketed. Nationally on Friday, the average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded was $3.41 - up from about $2.12 a year ago, according to AAA.

Consider an app like GasBuddy, which shows real-time prices and helps steer users to cheaper options.

And there’s nothing like inflation to keep travelers away from overpriced airport food and drinks. Try to eat before heading to the airport - it’s safer anyway - and bring snacks, as well as a reusable bottle to fill up with (free) water after going through security.