These Are the Busiest Travel Days of the Year, According to TSA

The holidays often bring with them some of the most congested days at the country’s airports and on the roads.

Long lines at TSA security screening checkpoint

The Tuesday and Wednesday just before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after Thanksgiving are often among the busiest travel days of the year.

Photo by Jim Lambert / Shutterstock

This year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is preparing for a holiday travel season that could approach prepandemic levels after two years of much less crowded airports with holiday travels muted by the pandemic. TSA reports that there’s a good chance it could screen as many as 2.5 million daily passengers on Wednesday, November 23, which would be the highest number yet this year—and that number could top 2.5 million passengers on Sunday, November 27.

The agency notes that the busiest travel days of the year are usually the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after Thanksgiving. TSA recorded its highest passenger screening volume in its history on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, when nearly 2.9 million passengers passed through TSA checkpoints.

Return to pre-pandemic levels

While the agency doesn’t expect to hit 2.9 million daily passengers this holiday season, “We expect to be busier this year than last year at this time, and probably very close to prepandemic levels,” stated TSA administrator David Pekoske.

So far this year, daily passenger numbers have not yet topped 2.5 million on any given day, but they have come close several times. These have been the busiest travel days at the country’s airports thus far in 2022:

  • October 23: 2.491 million passengers
  • October 16: 2.495 million passengers
  • October 14: 2.471 million passengers
  • September 2: 2.479 million passengers
  • July 1: 2.490 million passengers

Beyond just air travel, AAA predicts that 54.6 million Americans will travel this Thanksgiving, making this year the third busiest for Thanksgiving travel since AAA started tracking in 2000. (In the last 22 years, 2005 and 2019 were the two busiest years for Thanksgiving travel.)

“Plan ahead and pack your patience, whether you’re driving or flying,” stated Paula Twidale, AAA’s senior vice president of travel. The association reports that most travelers will be driving to their destinations—nearly 49 million people will be road tripping this Thanksgiving.

They won’t just be flying or driving, however. More than 1.4 million travelers will be taking a bus, train, or cruise ship this Thanksgiving, according to AAA.

The busiest travel days around Christmas and New Year’s

As for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the number of travelers is likely to ramp up during the end of December and into early January as well. In 2019, the highest number of travelers during the Christmas and New Year period was on Friday, December 17 (one week before Christmas), when 2.6 million travelers passed through TSA checkpoints. The second busiest day was Christmas Eve, with 2.58 million travelers, followed by the day after Christmas with 2.57 million travelers.

Most popular holiday travel destinations

So, where’s everybody going this holiday season? Whether people are traveling to see family or friends, or to get away on a vacation, according to travel booking site Hopper, these are the most popular Christmas travel destinations in 2022.

New York City consistently ranks as one of the top domestic travel destinations for the holidays.

New York City consistently ranks as one of the top domestic travel destinations for the holidays.

Photo by Elias Andres Jose/Unsplash

U.S. destinations

  1. New York City
  2. Los Angeles, California
  3. Seattle, Washington
  4. Orlando, Florida
  5. San Diego, California
  6. Chicago, Illinois
  7. Phoenix, Arizona
  8. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
  9. Portland, Oregon
  10. Denver, Colorado

International destinations

  1. Mexico City, Mexico
  2. Manila, Philippines
  3. Guadalajara, Mexico
  4. Lima, Peru
  5. San Salvador, El Salvador
  6. Accra, Ghana
  7. San Juan, Puerto Rico
  8. Cancun, Mexico
  9. Bogota, Colombia
  10. Mumbai, India

With airport security checkpoints expected to be busier than they have been in more than two years, and with staffing shortages still plaguing the airline industry, here are some tips to keep in mind if you plan on flying during a busier time.

Tips for flying during the busiest times of the year

There are a few ways to make travel easier and clear busy TSA checkpoints more quickly, this holiday season.

Get TSA PreCheck, Clear, and/or Global Entry

Never have these security expediting services been more valuable than during the current congestion happening at U.S. airports. TSA PreCheck recently reduced its prices from $85 to $78 for a five-year membership, and it’s only $70 to renew. Clear costs $189 per year. International travelers should consider the $100 Global Entry, which includes TSA PreCheck, for expedited customs screening upon arrival in the United States—and there’s a secret way to speed up the application process.

Check to see if your airport has a fast-pass security lane you can book in advance—for free

No TSA PreCheck or Clear? Select U.S. airports are giving travelers the option to make an advance “fast pass” reservation to head to the front of the security line—free of charge. We’ve compiled the full list of airports that offer this service.

Consider traveling with carry-on only

For those who don’t want to risk their luggage getting lost during a busy travel time when airports remain understaffed, traveling with carry-on may be your best bet. Another alternative? Luggage-shipping services.

Know what you can bring through security

If you’re traveling with carry-on, know what you can and cannot pack in said carry-on. By now, you know you can only carry on liquids in containers 3.4 ounces or smaller, so be sure that holiday items such as gravy, cranberry sauce, or wine are either left behind or packed in a checked bag as they are considered liquids and could otherwise be confiscated (and create delays). Check AFAR’s in-depth guide to what foods you can bring through TSA to make sure that what you’ve packed in your carry-on can pass through security.

Thoroughly check your bags before leaving the house

TSA recommends that travelers fully empty their bags prior to packing to make sure that they don’t accidentally bring something to the airport that they didn’t intend to bring, which could cause further delays.

Monitor the weather

Check the weather and forecasts that are available on sites such as the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather so that you can be prepared for possible disruptions and establish back-up plans for delayed travel.

Get to the airport earlier than you’d think

The lines and wait times at the country’s airports (and abroad, too) are longer than they’ve been in years. Best to arrive early and have some extra time postsecurity than risk missing your flight waiting in an hours-long check-in or security line. Aim for at least two hours before domestic flights and at least three for international flights.

Know if and when you are due a refund because of a delayed or canceled flight

On September 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) launched a new Aviation Consumer Protection website to help travelers track down what kind of refunds or compensation their airline should provide when there is a cancellation or delay.

Airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled due to problems deemed beyond the company’s control, like bad weather. They also aren’t required to provide a refund when the passenger initiates the cancellation or flight change. But a refund is required by U.S. law when the airline cancels, delays, or alters a flight, or passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold or due to issues originating from the airline, such as operational or staffing problems.

Additionally, after the federal government began cracking down on airlines this year, all of the major U.S. airlines vowed to provide meal vouchers for delays of more than three hours and to provide transfers and hotel stays to passengers affected by an overnight cancellation. They have all also agreed to rebook travelers on an alternate flight at no added cost due to a delay or cancellation and most will also rebook on a partner airline.

This article originally appeared online in July 2018; it was most recently updated on November 21, 2022, to include current information.

Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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