This Thanksgiving week, America will once again clog its arteries — from highways to airport concourses, people are back on the move.
By most estimates, many more travelers will be filling the skies and roads for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday week than last year’s.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is projecting holiday traffic to be at 88% of 2019 levels, with almost 1.5 million moving through the airport between Thursday and Monday, up 148% from 2020. That year, the airport saw only 590,000 travelers, or 36% of the 2019 volume (1.65 million). Historically, the peak days during the busy week are Monday-Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Sunday-Monday afterward.
According to Expedia’s most recent available ticket-purchase data, the top five flight destinations for Seattleites this Thanksgiving are Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco and San Diego. (Honolulu came in at No. 10). Ontario, Canada, is the most popular international destination this Thanksgiving, followed by the Mexican cities of Cancún, Puerto Vallarta, San Jose del Cabo and Mexico City.
The Port of Seattle says the expected travel surge could lead to a serious parking crunch at the airport and is encouraging people to use public transportation (particularly the new links in the light rail chain), or taxis and ride-share services instead of driving themselves. Several off-site lots near the airport closed during the pandemic, leading to more parking in the airport’s garage — where space is already limited by a construction project and increased airport staff parking. (Staff would normally park in an employee lot north of the airport, Port media liaison Perry Cooper said, but have been moved to the main garage due to a shortage of shuttle bus drivers.)
The Port also encourages air travelers to use its new SEA Spot Saver program (which allows free reservations for the security screening lines up to 72 hours before travel during the busy window between 5 a.m. and 1 p.m.) and to “think opposite” when driving loved ones to and from the airport: drop off folks at the arrivals drive and pick up folks at the departures drive.
The AAA travel forecast is also expecting heavy traffic, with 53.4 million people nationwide traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday — 90.3% of them by car. That’s an anticipated 48.3 million people on the road, an increase of 8.4% from 2020, and the highest year-over-year growth in Thanksgiving road traffic since the Great Recession.
AAA predicts the gains for other forms of transportation to be even bigger: an 80% increase in nationwide air travel over last year and a 264% increase in people traveling by train, bus, cruise ship and other modes of conveyance.
Peak traffic times in Washington are expected to vary depending on the roadway. Based on previous years’ traffic patterns, the Washington State Department of Transportation projects the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day and the Sunday after the holiday to be particularly busy on Interstate 90 while Wednesday and Saturday look busiest on Interstate 5. (For more information, see: wsdot.wa.gov/travel/holiday-weekend-travel.)
Hotel associations, in contrast, are expecting a sleepier holiday. A survey of 2,200 adults by the American Hotel and Lodging Association found only 22% of those traveling on Thanksgiving planned to stay in a hotel.
Locally, Visit Seattle has seen an average 62% hotel occupancy rate on Thanksgiving weekends between 2015 and 2019. (The highest occupancy during that period was 73% in 2015, credited partially to a Seahawks game, with the lowest being 55% in 2018.) Last year, the average occupancy rate was 13%.
“We are not expecting a huge impact this Thanksgiving weekend as the Seahawks are not playing a home game this year and Kraken are on the road,” said Kauilani Robinson of Visit Seattle. “And we haven’t seen a big surge yet in Canadian bookings, which we think is due to the rigid testing requirements to go back.”
While COVID-19 infection rates are inching up in some parts of the country, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has given in-person Thanksgivings a green light — for the vaccinated.
“If you get vaccinated and your family’s vaccinated, you can feel good about enjoying a typical Thanksgiving, Christmas with your family and close friends,” he said in an interview on Nov. 15 hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center. “But, we still have about 60 million people in the country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet gotten vaccinated, and that’s excluding the 28 million children from 5 to 11 who we’ve recently now have authorization and recommendation to vaccinate.”