(NerdWallet) – If last year’s winter holiday travel season felt costly or chaotic, this year’s might seem even more so.
That’s because half of Americans (50%) plan to spend money on flights or hotel stays this holiday season, according to a new NerdWallet survey conducted online by The Harris Poll. The survey was based on responses from 2,057 adults collected Sept. 5-7, 2023.
That 50% figure is higher than last year when 44% of Americans said they’d planned to spend money on travel.
When will crowds be the biggest? Probably the Sunday after Thanksgiving. That was the busiest travel day in 2019, 2021 and 2022, according to a NerdWallet analysis of Transportation Security Administration data showing the number of passengers screened at TSA checkpoints over the past four years. Travelers can expect 2023’s winter holiday travel season to follow suit.
The busiest travel days this holiday season
While half of Americans will travel for at least one of the winter holidays (and some will travel for more than one), some holidays prompt more activity than others.
According to NerdWallet’s survey, which defines “travel” as staying away from home for at least one night, regardless of whether it includes flights or hotel stays as opposed to driving or staying overnight with family or friends:
- 40% of Americans plan to travel for the December holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa).
- 29% plan to travel for Thanksgiving.
- 19% plan to travel for New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.
If more Americans say they intend to travel for the December holidays compared with Thanksgiving, why does the latter tend to set the travel records? It largely comes down to timing.
Thanksgiving takes place on the fourth Thursday in November every year. Travelers tend to have the same itinerary, departing the Wednesday before the holiday and returning the Sunday after, creating the two busiest days to fly around Thanksgiving.
With Christmas, trend lines are more opaque because the holiday is on a different day of the week every year. Christmas in 2023 falls on a Monday. So, while Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to be the best days to fly (meaning lower costs and smaller crowds), this year Tuesday, Dec. 26, might be unusually busy.
In fact, Dec. 26 may be the most expensive day to return in the week after Christmas this year, according to the 2023 Holiday Travel Outlook from the travel booking site Hopper. As far as busy travel days ahead of the holiday, expect the preceding Friday (Dec. 22 this year) to be among the worst days to fly ahead of Christmas.
What about people who aren’t traveling?
While about 50% of Americans plan to spend money on flights or hotel stays this holiday season, 39% say they don’t plan to spend money on holiday travel and 11% are undecided, according to NerdWallet’s survey.
For some, the decision not to travel is pretty straightforward. For example, 39% of those not traveling say it’s because their friends and family are local, and 10% are hosting others for the holidays.
Of those not spending money on flights or hotel stays this holiday season, 24% say it’s because they can’t afford it.
Planning to travel at the same time as everyone else
Traveling on peak days alongside everyone else brings more challenges than just longer airport security lines or the increased likelihood of sitting in the middle seat.
With that in mind, budget more time to get to your destination. Boarding may take longer, and airport lounges might be busier, if not full. If the airline cancels your flight, expect to compete with more people to get on the next available flight.
Seek ways to bypass the lines. For example, holding TSA PreCheck can help get you in expedited security lines (and you might even be able to get TSA PreCheck for free). Earning airline elite status can mean access to VIP lanes for things like checking baggage, while hotel elite status might get you into expedited check-in lanes.
And if that all sounds like too much, consider opting out of holiday travel entirely. Those 39% of people who don’t plan to spend money on flights and hotel stays this holiday season might be onto something.