Thanksgiving week tends to draw major airport crowds. Coupled with inevitable weather delays and sometimes infrequent flyers, it can be a brutal time to travel. Not to mention, the conventional wisdom to fly on Tuesdays won’t necessarily save you much money.
But some days within Thanksgiving week are significantly busier than others. If you can afford to be flexible with your schedule, you’ll not only save money, but you might also avoid chaos.
The best and worst days to fly around Thanksgiving
NerdWallet analyzed the past three years of checkpoint travel numbers provided by the Transportation Security Administration, which tracks the number of passengers screened daily at U.S. TSA checkpoints.
In each of the past three years, the Sunday after Thanksgiving was the most crowded day to travel from the Friday before Thanksgiving through the Wednesday after.
As far as the least crowded? Thanksgiving Day itself.
When averaging over the past three years, here were the most to least crowded days for Thanksgiving flying, ranked:
- Sunday after Thanksgiving (most crowded).
- Wednesday before.
- Saturday after.
- Friday before.
- Cyber Monday.
- Sunday before.
- Tuesday before.
- Monday before.
- Saturday before.
- Giving Tuesday.
- Black Friday.
- Wednesday after.
- Thanksgiving Day (least crowded).
When broken out by pre- and post-holiday travel, here are the three least-crowded days to travel ranked from least to most crowded. Because they’re less crowded and likely less expensive, it makes them some of the best days to fly around Thanksgiving.
- Saturday before.
- Monday before.
- Tuesday before.
- Wednesday after.
- Black Friday.
- Giving Tuesday.
Why flying the Sunday after Thanksgiving is so terrible
By almost all metrics, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is pretty much the worst day of the year you could fly. In both 2021 and 2019, it was the busiest single day of the entire year in terms of U.S. passengers, based on TSA passenger data.
The post-Thanksgiving Sunday was not the busiest day of the year in 2020 because, well, you know why (2020’s most-crowded-day award went to Friday, Feb. 14, which preceded the Presidents Day weekend and pandemic-related travel restrictions).
But although 2020 holiday crowds were certainly lighter than usual, the trend of Sunday as a busy day still rang true. Over 2x more people passed through TSA on the Sunday after than those who passed through on Thanksgiving in 2020.
Here’s a numerical breakdown of crowds on Thanksgiving Day itself versus the Sunday after Thanksgiving for the past three years:
For every 100 people who were flying out on Thanksgiving Day 2021, there were 177 people flying out on the Sunday after.
The smarter, cheaper Thanksgiving weekend itinerary
Beyond crowds, expect to pay big this year. The average round-trip domestic airfare for trips beginning between Nov. 20 and Nov. 24, 2022, is $350, according to travel booking app Hopper. That figure is 43% higher compared to flights taken during the same weekdays last year, and it’s 22% higher than 2019 prices. However, around that time frame, prices can swing wildly: The average domestic airfare for round-trip flights returning Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, are $528 — a 51% increase above the average.
If you work a standard Monday-Friday workweek, with two days off for the holiday, then leaving Wednesday after work and flying home Sunday night might make sense to eliminate time off work. That’s the schedule most people follow, and if you join in then you’ll pay — both in terms of literal price but also airport crowds.
But if you can be a bit flexible, then avoid the Wednesday-Sunday itinerary and try these travel days instead.
Travel on Thanksgiving Day
Across travel days for the week before and after Thanksgiving, the holiday itself was the lowest-traffic day every year over the past three years. Book the first flight out for the day — a practice NerdWallet recommends anyway to reduce your odds of a flight delay — and you might even land in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
And according to flight data from travel search engine Expedia, traveling on Thanksgiving Day is also the cheapest day to fly within that period.
If you don’t mind extending your trip, the Wednesday after Thanksgiving was the second-least busy day in 2021 and 2020. Especially if you have the option of remote work, you might be able to avoid taking vacation days, despite the longer trip.
Even if you can’t stay through Wednesday, you’ll still save by flying out on Monday versus the Sunday after Thanksgiving. According to Hopper, domestic airfares average 17% cheaper to fly out on Cyber Monday versus flying out one day earlier.
It can also make sense to get your Thanksgiving celebrations started early by flying out well ahead of the day before. Expedia data found that average ticket prices for departures on the Monday before Thanksgiving are 15% cheaper than Wednesday departures. And in some cities, the difference is even starker. For example, average airfares for domestic flights to Las Vegas dropped from $550 for Wednesday arrivals to just $380 for arrival days earlier in the week, amounting to roughly 31% in savings.
Fly on Black Friday
If you must travel during the weekend, consider having Thanksgiving dinner at your own home and then flying somewhere on Black Friday, which is the third-least crowded day to fly on average. Hopper’s 2022 Holiday Travel Outlook said Black Friday fares average $175 less than fares for the weekend days after.
Consider it a great way to not only avoid airport crowds, but also retail crowds — as you won’t be out shopping.
The standard rules around the best (and worst) days to fly don’t necessarily apply. Coupling that with conventional wisdom around saving money on flights, flying for Thanksgiving might not be as painful a proposition as you once thought.
Explore wetlands, swamps and hardwood forest, and steep yourselves in history as you hike a section of this National Scenic Trail. The foot trails, totaling more than 60 miles, are divided into five sections, making it easy for families to choose a comfortable distance. The trail runs roughly parallel to the Natchez Trace Parkway scenic motor road, designated one of America's National Scenic Byways and one of only 31 All-American Roads. The historic trail dates back to the early 1700s when sections were Indian footpaths and animal trails. In the late 1700s through the early 1820s, traders from the Middle Tennessee and Kentucky areas floated their goods down the Cumberland, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to Natchez and then walked or rode horses up the Trace to return home. Today, travelers explore the National Park in their personal vehicles, take time to hike, ride horses and camp along the way. During the fall, visitors enjoy the changing colors of maple, hickory, oak and other hardwood trees, milder temperatures and overnight accommodations in small towns along the historic travel corridor stretching from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee.
For more: https://www.nps.gov/natr/index.html
Visit this unique botanical garden — the only one in the world to focus solely on desert plants — to wander the trails where sometimes spiky and colorful plants provide a home for roadrunners, rabbits, lizards and hummingbirds. With 55 of the Garden’s 140 acres hosting 485 rare and endangered plant species, as well as nearly 1000 others, there is plenty to see and learn during an active visit. Plan your nature walk to include multiple discovery trails. Be sure to include the butterfly pavilion, where you’ll learn about the winged creature’s life cycle as well as how they care for and protect the desert environment.
For more: www.DBG.org
West Virginia State Parks
Choose from more than 20 miles of hiking trails as you explore this scenic stretch of West Virginia along the New River Gorge. Expect easy and level loop trails as well as more challenging terrain. Located on 4,127 wooded acres, the park is best known for the Glade Creek Grist Mill, a re-creation of the original 1890 Cooper’s Mill that once ground grain in the same location. Today, hikers can journey back in time to the days when grinding grain by a rushing stream was typical. The current mill grinds cornmeal that is intermittently available to visitors.
For more: https://wvstateparks.com/park/babcock-state-park/
North County Trail Assoc.
The full length of the Kekekabic Trail, or the Kek as it is known to local hikers, winds almost 40 miles from Snowbank Road, east of Ely, through the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, to the famed Gunflint Trail, west of Grand Marais. Take on a family-sized slice of this wild trail to experience rocky outcroppings, pristine lakes, scenic bluffs and eagles soaring overhead. Listen for the rich yodeling of resident loons in the distance.
For more: www.Kek.org; www.ExploreMinnesota.com.
This 6-mile round-trip hike provides a visual feast of nature's bounty. The initial views include tumbling waterfalls through a canyon-walled section of the Stillwater River known locally as "the washtubs." The river braids and the canyon widens as hikers move toward the Beartooth Mountain peaks, ambling through forest and meadows dotted with wildflowers of the changing colors of the season. The lake area or intermittent rock outcroppings provide the perfect setting for a family picnic.
For more: www.visitmt.com; www.MTHikes.com.
AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach
The origin stories of delicious creations are often contested, and the whoopie pie is no exception.
Pennsylvania and Maine are just two of the locations that lay claim to the chocolate cake-like cookie sandwiches filled with cream. Amish cooks came up with them, Pennsylvania says, while Maine says they were first sold at Labadie's Bakery in Lewiston in the 1920s.
Maine took things one step further by making the whoopie pie the official state "treat" in 2011. (Not to be confused with the state dessert, which is blueberry pie).
By <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/15244081@N00">Eunice</a> - <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/ejchang/2664211798/">the best birthday cake ever.</a>Uploaded by <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Di%C3%A1doco&action=edit&redlink=1" class="new" title="User:Diádoco (page does not exist)">Diádoco</a>, CC BY-SA 2.0
Alabama's got a state dessert, too: Lane cake. The star of this layer cake is the filling — a buttery, bourbon- or brandy-spiked raisin mixture that sometimes includes pecans and coconut.
Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, is credited as the cake's creator and namesake, and the recipe appeared in her 1898 "Some Good Things to Eat" cookbook. The Southern sweet also makes it into the pages of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Named for Marion County, Oregon, the marionberry is a cross between Chehalem and Olallie blackberries. The berry was introduced in 1956, according to the Oregon Raspberry & Blackberry Commission. The marionberry has "a tart, earthy sweetness," the commission says, "perfect for eating fresh."
They're also very good in pies, and come July, bakeries are brimming with berries baked into rich, buttery crusts. Lauretta Jean's Pie Bakery in Portland makes the most of the short but sweet marionberry season.
The iconic key lime pie's origins have been called into question in recent years, and Floridians aren't happy about it. But the pie certainly has strong ties to Florida, and it's the official state pie. (Still, strawberry shortcake's recent designation as state dessert was met with consternation from some key lime pie lovers).
Small, tart, yellowish key limes were once grown commercially in the Florida Keys, and the pie is Key West's signature dish. Britannica's online entry about the pie suggests that these days imported limes or bottled juice are used in many pies. Typically, a graham cracker crust is filled with a tart custard made with plenty of juice and sweetened condensed milk.
St. Louis gooey butter cake is thought to be the result of a happy accident of proportions in the 1930s.
Although not Missouri's state dessert (that would be the ice cream cone, which has ties to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair), the dense, flat cake with a gooey center is for sale all over St. Louis — in classic form or with a twist such as lemon or butter pecan flavor. It's often dusted with powdered sugar.
Shave ice came to Hawaii via sugar plantation workers from Japan, where kakigori had been a popular sweet dessert for centuries. Soft flakes of ice shaved from a solid block soak up the sweet syrup of your choice.
Matsumoto Shave Ice, established in 1951 on Oahu's North Shore, has been serving the refreshing treat to generations of locals and visitors. Lilikoi (passion fruit) and pickled mango are on the tropical end of a flavor spectrum that includes raspberry and bubblegum. Condensed milk, vanilla ice cream and azuki beans are among the available add-ons.
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Legal battles have been fought over a delicious chocolate walnut pie from Kentucky. Kern's Kitchen in Louisville says there's only one such pie, first created in 1954, and it has a registered trademark on "Derby-Pie®."
The business is very serious about it.
"Protecting our trademark means protecting our reputation and the integrity of our product. So although we prefer to settle differences amicably, we will resort to litigation if necessary," Kern's Kitchen's website says. But the Louisville Courier-Journal prevailed in 2021 in a trademark dispute over the use of the words "derby pie" in a recipe and article in the newspaper. A pie worth fighting for? Taste it and see.
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This coffee cake makes a delicious holiday brunch treat or a sweet coffee accompaniment any time of day. The cake has roots in Moravian Church settlements in North Carolina and Pennsylvania dating back hundreds of years.
In North Carolina, Dewey's Bakery in Winston-Salem has been baking the buttery cakes since 1930. Winston-Salem is also touted as the production epicenter of the incredibly thin Moravian cookie, which features molasses, cloves and ginger in its most traditional form.
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Peanut butter and chocolate with no baking necessary. What's not to love? This candy hails from the Buckeye State, a nickname that originates from a tree with nuts that resemble the eye of a deer.
The story goes that the bite-sized sweets, where all but the top of the peanut butter ball is covered in a layer of dark chocolate, were created in the 1960s by Ohio resident Gail Tabor.
They were shared at Ohio State-Michigan football games, and their simple goodness eventually spread well beyond the state.
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"A pie in cake's clothing." That's how Yankee Magazine described the Boston cream pie, which involves sweet pastry cream sandwiched between two rounds of golden cake, finished with a smooth chocolate glaze.
This pie impostor seems to have originated at Boston's Parker House Hotel, now Omni Parker House, which opened in 1855. Boston cream pie is the state dessert of Massachusetts. (The state doughnut? Yup, Boston cream.) Why it's called a pie is still very much a mystery.
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This banana dish involving butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, rum and banana liqueur — and set on fire tableside and served over vanilla ice cream — was dreamed up at Brennan's Restaurant in New Orleans. It was for a 1951 dinner honoring Richard Foster, chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission, according to The Times-Picayune newspaper.
At Brennan's, it's offered at breakfast, lunch and dinner and is the most-ordered item on the menu. Here's the recipe. Proceed with caution, flambé novices.
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With up to 10 thin layers of yellow cake separated by fudge frosting, this cake originating on Maryland's Smith Island is thought to date back generations. Its designation as Maryland's official state dessert in 2008 brought national attention to the cake and its birthplace, a three-by-five mile island in the Chesapeake Bay where pretty much everything arrives by boat.
Today, two baking outfits, Smith Island Bakery and Smith Island Baking Company, ship different flavors of the cake all over the country.
The precise origins of the coconut cake are hard to pin down, but decadent layer cakes covered in shaved coconut have been associated with the South since the 1800s. Baker and author Anne Byrn told NPR that enslaved African cooks had knowledge of new ingredients such as coconut and produced some of the South's best cakes.
Here's a treasured family recipe from Cheryl Day of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia.
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This anise-flavored cookie topped with cinnamon sugar was brought to New Mexico by early Spanish colonists. The biscochito has been the official state cookie since 1989, and by New Mexico's claim, the first in the nation to receive the designation. Frequently made with lard, the dough is rolled out thin and often cut into shapes. The cookies are a Christmas tradition and often appear at weddings and other celebrations.
Texas Monthly said it got a "sheet-load of letters" a few years ago about the best way to make this thin chocolate cake that's often associated with funerals and church events.
How it came to be associated with the state is still a mystery, although its size has been put forward as one possible reason. Often baked in a jelly-roll pan, the cake is expansive. Cocoa is the standout ingredient in both cake and frosting, with nuts mixed into the latter.