"Over the river and through the woods" may be poetry to some ears, but it fails to account for the gridlock and delays that are typical of Thanksgiving travel. The good news is that Turkey Day may not be as bad as you think. So whether you're going to Grandmother's house or simply getting out of town, here are five travel myths about our most American of holidays.
1. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest air travel day of the year.
This needs to be qualified.
"Typically, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the holiday weekend as people make their way to their holiday destinations," says Julie Hall, public relations manager of the AAA National Office.
Fair enough. But it's not the busiest air travel day of the year, says David Smallen, director of public affairs of the Department of Transportation (DOT). Far from it. So what is?
"It's a different summer day each year, based on the number of domestic flights," Smallen says. Based on DOT stats, the busiest day in 2014 was actually Aug. 8. Looking back as far as 2006, the busiest day of air travel was invariably a day in either July or August. So while the Wednesday before Thanksgiving may feel like the busiest day, don't believe the pundits who roll out that claim yearly like the proverbial Thanksgiving green bean casserole.
Of course, then there's the return home. The busiest day "for return travel on the holiday weekend is usually the Sunday after Thanksgiving," says Hall, confirming what every air and car driver already knows.
But contrary to what you might think, not everyone is traveling at the same time. Hall of AAA says that "in 2012, 45% departed on Wednesday and 36% returned on Sunday. In 2013, 37% of Thanksgiving travelers left on Wednesday and 33% returned Sunday."
It turns out that it's Thursday morning, Thanksgiving Day itself, that has grown busier over the years, as more travelers opt to avoid the dreaded Wednesday getaway.
2. There are more air delays at Thanksgiving than at any other time of year.
It may seem that way, especially if you're the one who's stuck in an airport, but it's not the case, says Christine Sarkis, senior editor at SmarterTravel.com.
"Let's look at the numbers," she says. "From January to August of this year, about 22% of flights were delayed. Compare that to a 19% three-year average for Thanksgiving flight delays. That's good news to anyone traveling over the Thanksgiving period, and bad news for anyone hoping for fewer delays the rest of the year."
Indeed, despite crowded airports and crowded flights, it's "summer thunderstorms and winter snowstorms (that) cause more delays than what airlines experience around the Thanksgiving holiday," says Hall of AAA.
3. You'll never find a last-minute airfare deal during the Thanksgiving period.
Not true, say the experts. Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, urges travelers to start their search now, because prices are only bound to go up.
"A quick search right now for transcontinental New York to L.A. flights on the three major U.S. airlines showed availability on each airline, albeit at a higher cost, for a family of four flying Tuesday to Sunday," Kelly says.
Sarkis of SmarterTravel agrees, saying that "You can usually find a last-minute airfare deal. It just might not be to where you want to go." So if you're up for a trip that doesn't involve a festive family dinner, "you can often find last-minute deals to popular tourist destinations that simply aren't as busy during the more typically home-for-the-holidays Thanksgiving period. This can also be a good time to find good last-minute deals to international destinations."
Kelly adds that "sometimes there are great paid fare deals to be had over Thanksgiving for trans-Atlantic travel. There's nothing like a Thanksgiving turkey in Turkey! Airlines like La Compagnie and even British Airways have offered discount business-class airfares across the pond, some even available during Thanksgiving."
4. You can't use frequent-flier miles to get around the high airfares because of blackout dates.
"It's true that you can't use frequent-flier miles on sold out flights," says Kelly, The Points Guy. "Flights during Thanksgiving are often sold out, especially as the holiday approaches. But that doesn't mean that there's no value in frequent-flier miles to be had."
Kelly offers some key mileage tips to think about this year as the holiday gets closer. He notes that most airlines no longer have blackout dates but opt instead to charge more points or miles.
"This is especially true of airlines that offer fixed value redemptions, like Southwest orJetBlue," he says, noting that this is also true on "American Airlines, where award tickets on Sunday, Nov. 29, skyrocket in price."
Kelly's sage advice for frequent fliers is to "be flexible. If you can fly out a day before or after the rest of the crowds, you'll save miles. If your award search looks bad in economy, check out business- or first-class tickets. Often times there is more space at a lower overall cost per ticket."
5. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest car travel day of the year.
It's easy to believe that this is true, when a car journey seems to take two or three times longer than normal. But it's not the worst day.
"The day before Thanksgiving is usually in the top 10 busiest travel days of the year, "says Sarkis. So while the peak of the summer family travel season may be busier on many routes, "that still means there will be a lot of people on the road."
Before heading out, plan your departure time with care, Sarkis says, which can make the biggest difference on your holiday drive.
"If you are traveling on the day before Thanksgiving," says Sarkis,"try to get an early start. According to historical traffic data from Google Maps, pre-Thanksgiving traffic peaks between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on the Wednesday."