The only thing more challenging than an interminable turkey meal with a squabbling family? Getting there in the first place.
Thanksgiving may kick off the most wonderful time of year, but it’s also the least wonderful time of year for travel. According to the AAA (American Automobile Association), around 47 million Americans travel for Thanksgiving, making it one of the busiest seasons of the year.
In fact, entire films and songs have been dedicated to the famous Thanksgiving trek, often with an attempt to inject some levity, like the old favourite Planes, Trains & Automobiles, with Steve Martin and John Candy. Their dash across the country to get home for Thanksgiving is excruciating and hilarious, but the outcome is a happy one. With some savvy planning and following these tips, yours can be too.
Do book in advance
The early bird gets the cheapest airfare. Yes, there’s the possibility that prices will dip closer to the Thanksgiving holiday, but those flights will be at inopportune times (nothing’s worse than a 4am alarm) and/or arduously non-direct (multiple stops, long layovers).
So, if you’ve found the right date and time, and the price is right (or nearly so), buy it.
Don’t wrap gifts
Bringing presents home for Thanksgiving? Don’t wrap them up prettily – you may have to open them while going through airport security. Instead, toss them into a gift bag, or wrap on arrival.
Do consider alternate days
The easiest way to avoid the crowds? Travel when they’re not. The vast majority embark on their journey on the day before Thanksgiving, and the Sunday after. Be flexible and travel on Thanksgiving morning, and then return on Monday or Tuesday.
Don’t overlook the train
Amtrak may be far less romantic than its handsome European counterparts, but during the Thanksgiving rush, who’s quibbling? Trains don’t get stuck in holiday car traffic – and you don’t get stuck behind the wheel.
Plus, Amtrak services 500 destinations across 46 states, is more environmentally friendly than driving, and offers unique little perks, like Quiet Cars, where you can coast in glorious silence, as the outdoor scenery flashes by.
On the way back, explore the scenery (and work off that third slice of pie) with the Trails & Rails program, where you can learn about the National Parks on your train route.
Do use apps
At peak Thanksgiving travel times, many of the country’s busiest roadways resemble parking lots. Plan ahead with apps like Waze, which shows traffic alerts and reporting from other drivers.
Navigate the airport with GateGuru, highlighting the best shops and amenities in airports, and FlightBoard, which essentially turns your iPhone into the airport Arrivals and Departures board.
And then there’s the weather, which is very finicky around Thanksgiving – stay updated with Weather Underground.
Finally: sign up for frequent flier status, even if you’re not. When the boarding crew needs to decide who to bump from a flight, frequent fliers are more often spared.
Don’t leave your plane seating to chance
That giddy joy you feel when you realize you have a row to yourself? Well, that won’t happen during Thanksgiving – flights are always packed. But, there are ways to ensure you get one of the best seats on the plane.
For starters, when you book, always select your seat. If your preferred seat isn’t available, pick one anyway. You can always change it later, and this way you have a seat assignment.
As for where to sit: seats over the wing usually offer a smoother ride. If you need to deplane quickly, sit toward the front, to the left of the plane. For leg room, pick an exit row.
Do bring snacks
We’ve all done it: you start the day with a nutritious smoothie, race to the airport – and then all healthy habits dissolve. Lunch becomes a giant bag of Cheetos, maybe an Auntie Ann’s pretzel, and a soda, and you’ve just spent $17.
Instead, pack some almonds, dried fruit, string cheese – good refueling food. After all, if you’re going to pay too much, at least do so for a martini.
Don’t pack more than a carry-on
This is perhaps the most spouted travel tip in the world. But it bears repeating – and especially during Thanksgiving. Travel light, and everything become easier: your trek through the airport; changing flights; packing, unpacking, and repacking. One thing not to forget: your loose sweatpants, for optimal comfort after the third slice of pie.
Do breathe and relax (repeat)
Having a bad travel day? Stress compounds it and has a host of nasty effects: irritability, forgetfulness, frustration. Keep stress at bay by taking care of body and mind: go to sleep early the night before, stay well hydrated throughout the day, and, though easier said than done, adopt a relaxed attitude.
Don’t do this again next year
Bypass the Thanksgiving throngs by staying put for the holiday and instead visit on another weekend, when it’s cheaper, faster, easier. After all, turkeys are available year-round.