Home Traveling Traveling for Thanksgiving? What to know about flights, traffic, gas and more

Traveling for Thanksgiving? What to know about flights, traffic, gas and more

Traveling for Thanksgiving? What to know about flights, traffic, gas and more

Passengers board a flight at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday. The airport’s traffic has rebounded since COVID, setting a record for number of travelers in September. This week, the airport is anticipating 2,000 travelers flying out every day, with the exception of Thursday, when 2,500 passengers are expected to depart from Cedar Rapids. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Iowa travelers will see bustling airports, clear roads, busy highways and lower prices at the pump this week.

The Thanksgiving holiday travel period is expected to be the busiest in several years and a record-setter for air travel.

AAA forecasts more than 55.4 million people will travel 50 miles or more between Wednesday and Sunday. And the Transportation Security Administration is bracing for a record number of passengers at America’s airports over the Thanksgiving travel rush.

That includes more than 4 million regional travelers — among them Iowans — hitting the road, boarding flights or riding the rails during the Thanksgiving holiday travel period.

AAA’s estimates make this the third-busiest Thanksgiving travel period since AAA began tracking holiday travel in 2000. This year is expected to rank behind only 2019 and 2005 and is about 2 percent higher than last year.

“Travel demand has been strong all year and that trend will continue with one of the busiest Thanksgivings on record,” said Debbie Haas, Vice President of Travel for AAA — The Auto Club Group. “With more people taking to the roads, skies, rails and sea; travelers should expect congested roads and longer lines at transportation terminals. AAA encourages travelers to develop their plan now, leave early, and be courteous to others.”

What will Thanksgiving traffic look like?

Most Thanksgiving travelers will drive to their destinations. AAA predicts nearly 3.86 million will take a road trip of 50 miles or more in its seven-state West North Central Region, which includes Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota. That’s nearly 59,000 more drivers than last year from the region, which also includes Kansas and the Dakotas.

The anticipated auto travel volume is 593,000 shy of the regional all-time high, set during the 2005 Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

INRIX, a provider of transportation data and insights, expects Wednesday will be the busiest day on the roads during the Thanksgiving holiday travel period, with average travel times as much as 80 percent longer than normal in some metro areas. INRIX recommends leaving in the morning or after 6 p.m. to avoid the heaviest holiday congestion.

“The day before Thanksgiving is notoriously one of the most congested days on our roadways. Travelers should be prepared for long delays, especially in and around major metros,” INRIX transportation analyst Bob Pishue said in a statement. ” … We advise drivers to use traffic apps, local DOT notifications, and 511 services for real-time updates.”

As of Tuesday, 330 people have died in 2023 on Iowa roadways — up 12 percent from a five-year average and up 9 percent from last year at this time. Eighteen traffic deaths were reported in Iowa so far this month, compared to 26 traffic deaths recorded in November 2022, according to preliminary numbers from the Iowa Department of Transportation.

More than 46 percent of those who died in fatal traffic crashes in Iowa this year were not wearing a seat belt.

AAA’s Road Trip Tips:

  • Get a full vehicle inspection before leaving
  • Leave early and allow extra time to get to your destination
  • Identify alternate routes in case you encounter congestion or road closures.
  • Avoid distractions while driving. Program your GPS before your drive.
  • Ensure everyone in the vehicle wears their seat belt.
  • Never drive impaired.
  • Slow down and move over for first responders, tow trucks and any motorist with a disabled vehicle on the side of the road. With more people sharing the roads, the danger is multiplied for those on the roadside.

AAA’s ‘Tow and Go’ program returns for Thanksgiving holiday

The “Tow to Go” program will be active from 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 22 to 6 a.m. Monday, Nov. 27, according to AAA. This is the 25th year the Auto Club Group will provide the program that dispatches a tow truck to transport the impaired person and their vehicle to a safe location within a 10-mile radius for free.

“Tow to Go” guidelines:

* Free and available to AAA members and non-members alike

* Confidential local ride for one person and their vehicle to a safe location within a 10-mile radius

* Appointments cannot be scheduled in advance to use “Tow to Go”. It is designed as a safety net for those who did not plan ahead

* In some situations, AAA may need to make other arrangements to get an impaired driver a safe ride home

* “Tow to Go“ may not be available in rural areas or during severe weather conditions

Service Areas: FL, GA, IA, MI, ND, NE, TN, WI, CO (Denver), NC (Charlotte), IN (Fort Wayne/South Bend)

Phone Number: (855) 2-TOW-2-GO or (855) 286-9246

“’Tow to Go’ serves as that last line of defense in keeping impaired drivers off the road,” said Brian Ortner, a spokesperson for AAA — The Auto Club Group. “If you plan to celebrate this weekend, make plans for a safe ride home first. If your plans fall through, you can call AAA and we’ll get you to a safe space.”

What will road conditions look like this travel holiday?

Roads should be clear all week, said Justin Schultz, lead meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities.

“Things are looking dry. We don’t have any concerns for any precipitation that will make for hazardous travel and slick roads,” Schultz said. “We have a dry air mass in place that will really inhibit any precipitation from occurring. Roads should be in really good shape, not just in Iowa, but across the central part of the country and regionally across the Midwest.”

The week has started out fairly seasonable temperatures, with highs in the 40s before a cold front works its way through Thanksgiving Day.

Highs will dip below average Friday and Saturday into the middle to upper 30s. Overnight lows for Thanksgiving night and Friday night are expected to fall down into the 20s, Schultz said.

“There will be a couple of cold nights ahead for the latter part of the week,” he said. “There may be a warm up Sunday into Monday in the lower 40s across southeastern Iowa, but hovering around the uppers 30s to lower 40s for the weekend.”

What about gas prices this Thanksgiving holiday?

Thanksgiving road trips should be less costly at the gas pump this year.

Despite global tensions causing ripples through the oil market, strong domestic gasoline supplies are causing prices to drop at the pump in Iowa and across the nation, said Brian Ortner, public affairs specialist with AAA — The Auto Club Group.

Last Thanksgiving, the state average price for gasoline was $3.51 per gallon. As of Tuesday, the state average was $2.96 per gallon compared to a national average of $3.30 per gallon.

Nationwide, the average price of gas was down 36 cents a gallon from a year ago.

In Iowa, prices were dropped 34 cents a gallon from a month ago and were down 46 cents a gallon from a year ago.

Surrounding states also saw price declines at the pump.

The price of crude oil, which makes up more than 50 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas, was trading less than $80 per barrel Tuesday, down from more than $90 per barrel a month ago.

Ortner said gas prices should remain low through the holiday season unless oil prices suddenly spike.

“Part of it is demand, with people not traveling as much during the winter months,” he said. “Demand goes down and supply goes up, lowering prices. As of now, we’re still on that trend of a decline, but we’re also watching what’s happening with global events taking place. Right now, what’s happening globally hasn’t impacted prices.”

Visit GasPrices.AAA.com to view updated gas price averages.

What will airports look like this Thanksgiving?

The Eastern Iowa Airport and the Transportation Security Administration say they’re bracing for record-breaking Thanksgiving travel numbers.

The TSA said its expects to screen more than 30 million passengers during the 12-day Thanksgiving holiday period, which began Nov. 17 and concludes on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

AAA expects it to be the busiest Thanksgiving for air travel since 2005, with a nearly 7 percent increase over last year. Regionally, it expects nearly 231,000 people to fly from the seven-state region for Thanksgiving. That’s nearly 13,000 more than 2022, but still 4,000 behind 2019.

TSA projects it will screen 2.7 million passengers on Wednesday and 2.9 million passengers on Sunday, which will likely be the busiest travel day.

“We are ready for the anticipated volumes and are working closely with our airline and airport partners to make sure we are prepared for this busy holiday travel season,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement. “We will also do our best to maintain wait time standards of under 10 minutes for TSA PreCheck lanes and under 30 minutes for standard screening lanes.”

Thanksgiving travel at The Eastern Iowa Airport is anticipated to surpass pre-pandemic levels after posting passenger records the prior two months, said Pam Hinman, airport director of marketing and communications.

“So we’re already seeing full planes or nearly full planes,” Hinman said.

Ground crew load bags onto a flight at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday. The airport is anticipating Thursday being the busiest departure day of the year with about 2,500 people expected to fly out of Cedar Rapids. All other days this week, the airport is anticipating about 2,000 passengers boarding roughly 25 flights each day. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Ground crew load bags onto a flight at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday. The airport is anticipating Thursday being the busiest departure day of the year with about 2,500 people expected to fly out of Cedar Rapids. All other days this week, the airport is anticipating about 2,000 passengers boarding roughly 25 flights each day. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

About 10 percent more passengers traveled through The Eastern Iowa Airport in September than in the previous record-setting September before the pandemic struck.

The previous September record was set in 2019, with 107,049 total passengers at the Cedar Rapids airport. This September, the number jumped to 118,085. Passenger numbers also increased about 3 percent in October from the prior record set in 2019, and were up 14 percent compared to October 2022.

Hinman anticipates about 2,000 passengers boarding roughly 25 flights each day this week, with the exception of Wednesday, when roughly 2,500 passengers are expected to fly out of the airport — making it the busiest departure day of the year.

“So we’re telling people to pack their patience,” and arrive no later than 90 minutes before their scheduled departure, Hinman said.

“That allows you time to check your bags at the airline ticket counter and to get through security,” she said. “Yeah, you probably have time to spare, but why stress?”

Hinman added she’s not anticipating long lines or wait times for holiday travelers to pass through security screening.

“We have three checkpoint lanes if absolutely needed,” she said. “But, again, it’s a lot more families traveling. It’s a lot more people with strollers and maybe less-experienced travelers that can slow the process. You just have to take more time.”

And with thousands returning home en masse the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Hinman encouraged individuals to use the airport’s free cellphone waiting lot when picking up passengers to reduce traffic congestion near the terminal.

Air Travel Tips

  • Check-in early online and be sure to print or download boarding passes.
  • Monitor your flight status using your airline’s mobile app.
  • Enroll in TSA PreCheck.
  • Arrive 90 minutes before your scheduled departure.
  • Pack medications and an extra set of clothes in your carry-on bag, just in case your flight is delayed or canceled.
  • Pack smart: Be aware of the TSA’s do’s and don’ts.
  • Leave all gifts unwrapped.

Travelers or families of passengers who need assistance may call the TSA Cares helpline toll-free at 1-(855) 787-2227 at least 72 hours before travel with any questions about screening procedures and to find out what to expect at the security checkpoint. TSA Cares also arranges assistance at the checkpoint for travelers with specific needs.

Tips for Air Travelers who Have Not Booked their Flight Yet:

  • Book a flight that leaves early in the day. Flights in the afternoon and evening are more susceptible to delays and cancellations.
  • Book a direct flight. Otherwise, build in extra time between connections, in case your first flight is delayed.
  • Consider traveling on Thanksgiving Day. This could offer the best combination of availability and price.

Passengers wait at a gate at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Passengers wait at a gate at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

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