Thanksgiving 2021: AAA predicts brisk post-COVID travel season

More than 53.4 million people are expected to travel for Thanksgiving in 2021, signaling the highest single-year increase since 2005, the American Automobile Association projected on Tuesday.

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Meanwhile, the forecasted number of 2021 travelers may fall only about 5% below the pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels recorded in 2019, when some 56 million Americans took to the roads and skies.

AAA, a nonprofit federation of North American motor clubs with more than 60 million members across the United States and Canada, classifies the 2021 Thanksgiving holiday travel period as the five-day stretch between Wednesday, Nov. 24 and Sunday, Nov. 28.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released its recommendations for 2021 holiday gatherings and related travel, stating that the best way to minimize COVID-19 risk is to get vaccinated if you are eligible.

>> Related: Coronavirus: CDC issues new 2021 holiday COVID-19 guidance

Only about 47.1 million people traveled for the holiday in 2020, as public health officials implored Americans to avoid the traditional November gatherings in hopes that the COVID-19 surge gripping the nation at the time might subside in time for Christmas gatherings the following month. The COVID-19 pandemic hit its U.S. peak in the winter months, however, and new cases averaged about 1 million every four days, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

By contrast, COVID-19 cases have been largely declining nationwide since a summer surge, and the roughly 74,000 daily cases being reported currently are about 36% below the more than 116,000 daily cases recorded at this time last year, Forbes reported.

The 2021 travel projections represent a 13% year-over-year increase and break down as follows:

  • Some 48.3 million people are expected to travel by car, or 8.4% more than a year ago and only 3% fewer than drove in 2019.
  • About 4.2 million Thanksgiving travelers are expected to fly, representing an 80% year-over-year increase but a 9% decrease from the 4.5 million who flew in 2019.
  • Another 1.02 million people are expected to utilize other modes of transportation, including trains and buses. That figure represents a 264% year-over-year increase but a 31% decrease compared with 2019.

“This Thanksgiving, travel will look a lot different than last year,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in a prepared statement. “Now that the borders are open and new health and safety guidelines are in place, travel is once again high on the list for Americans who are ready to reunite with their loved ones for the holiday.”

According to the nonprofit, the heaviest vehicle traffic is expected to amass between 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 24, so drivers are advised to either reach their destinations before noon that day or travel on Thanksgiving Day to avoid gridlock.

Meanwhile, the busiest and most expensive day to fly is projected to be Wednesday, Nov. 24, AAA projected.

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