The best and worst times to travel for Christmas

AAA predicts that more than one-third of Americans will travel this holiday season, so knowing the best and worst times for traffic and weather can cut down your trip time.

According to AAA, the record-breaking 112.5 million travelers taking to the nation's runways, roads and rails for the year-end holidays represents a 4.4 percent increase over last year and the most since AAA has been tracking holiday travel.

"'Tis the season for holiday travel, and more Americans than ever will journey to spend time with friends and family or choose to take a vacation," said Bryan Shilling, managing director, AAA Travel products and services.

For the more than 102 million people who will pack up their cars for a holiday road trip, INRIX, a global mobility analytics company, predicts travel times in the most congested cities in the United States could be as much as four times longer than a normal trip.

Denver International Airport, travelers at security checkpoint, travelers
Denver International Airport, travelers at security checkpoint, travelers

Travelers wait in long lines to pass through a security checkpoint in Denver International Airport. Mild weather in parts of the country and lower gasoline prices have potentially created one of the busiest Thanksgiving Day travel periods since 2005, according to AAA. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

"Strong economic growth fueled by robust consumer spending continues to drive strong demand for seasonal travel. With a record-breaking one-third of the country choosing to travel this holiday, roadways and airports are sure to be busy," Shilling said.

The year-end holiday travel period is defined as Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, through Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. The 11-day span is one day longer than last year, due to Christmas and New Year's Day falling on Tuesdays this year.

"With a record-level number of travelers hitting the road this holiday, drivers must be prepared for delays in major metro areas - with Thursday, Dec. 20, being the nation's worst day to travel," says Trevor Reed, transportation analyst at INRIX.

"Our advice is to avoid traveling during peak commuting hours. If schedules allow, leave bright and early, or after the morning commute," Reed said.

According to AccuWeather meteorologists, storms with the greatest potential to disrupt travel will focus on the East and the Northwest in the days leading up to Christmas.

Christmas travel
Christmas travel

Some of the best weather-related travel conditions are likely over the Southwest and over parts of the Plains through Christmas. Delays and disruptions due to weather in these areas are likely to be brief when compared to other parts of the nation, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.


More Americans will travel by car this holiday season than ever before. The 102.1 million people expected to pack up their cars for road trips is 4.4 percent higher than last year. It is the most since AAA began tracking holiday travel in 2001.


The 6.7 million people who will travel by air this year is the highest level since in 15 years and is 4.2 percent more than last year.

A record 45.7 million passengers are expected to fly on domestic airlines from Dec. 20 to Jan. 6.

Trains, buses and cruise ships

Travel across these sectors will increase by 4 percent, with a total 3.7 million passengers.

Holiday hotspots

Based on historical and recent travel trends, INRIX expects drivers to experience the greatest amount of congestion before the holiday week, starting on Wednesday, Dec. 19, as commuters and holiday travelers mix on our nation's busiest roadways.

Drivers in Atlanta, New York City, Boston and Houston will see travel times more than three times a normal trip.


Best times to fly

An analysis of AAA's flight booking data from the last three years revealed that most holiday air travelers depart two or three days before Christmas and return the day after the holiday. This holiday season, Saturday, Dec. 22, Sunday, Dec. 23, and Wednesday, Dec. 26, will be the busiest days in the skies and at the airports.

Fewer holiday travelers choose to fly on Christmas Eve (Monday, Dec. 24) and Christmas Day (Tuesday, Dec. 25), which are the lightest travel days around the Christmas holiday.

AAA expects to rescue more than 960,000 motorists at the roadside this year-end holiday period. Dead batteries, lockouts and flat tires will be the leading reasons AAA members will experience car trouble.

AAA recommends motorists take their vehicle to a trusted repair facility to perform any needed maintenance before heading out. Oil changes, fluid level checks, battery tests and tire inspections go a long way toward reducing the chances of a breakdown.