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Claim that Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day needs context

Road delays are at their worst across major metros the day before Thanksgiving, but the Sunday after is when airports are busiest.

Fewer Americans than usual traveled in 2020 as health officials encouraged people to practice social distancing to avoid getting themselves or loved ones sick. More people are traveling this year because of loosened restrictions and fewer advisories, and potentially facing congestion and crowds on their way to their holiday celebrations.

Some say the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the entire year, but a number of news articles from the past decade have claimed this is a myth.

THE QUESTION

Is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving the busiest travel day of the year?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This needs context.

It’s true that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is when roads in major U.S. metro areas are most congested, and most holiday travel is by car. But for air travel, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving isn’t even in the top 10 busiest days of the year.

WHAT WE FOUND

The busiest travel day of the Thanksgiving holiday differs by mode of transportation.

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the busiest day of the year for airports nationwide in 2019 was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The agency screened more than 2.8 million people that day, the most ever in the agency’s 20-year history.

No other day of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend made it into the agency’s list of top 10 busiest days, including the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Instead, the rest of the list was filled with summer travel dates and other holidays.

But data from AAA shows that most holiday travel is done by automobile rather than by plane, train or bus, and AAA says the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the holiday period on roadways.

Road delays at the peak of holiday rush hour on that Wednesday were about three times longer than usual in 10 metro areas in 2019, according to AAA. That’s a longer average delay than those same areas saw at the peak of December holiday travel that year, the peak of Independence Day travel and the peak of Memorial Day travel

AAA predicts that pattern to hold this year. Wednesday is expected to be the busiest day on the roads during this year’s Thanksgiving season, with a traffic volume about 300% higher than usual at peak times. That’s much higher than the peak traffic volume that AAA expected going into this year’s Independence Day celebrations.

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