Travel-related spending over the 2023 holiday season is projected to increase 12% over 2022. This follows record-setting travel earlier in the year, when the Friday before the Fourth of July set a record for U.S. air travel with more than 2.884 million passengers passing through security checkpoints.

Being transportation engineers and planners can come in handy when it comes to strategizing holiday travel. Whatever your plans are for the holidays, here are five tips to help make this season more enjoyable from a transportation standpoint.

1. Strategize Your Thanksgiving Travel Days

For many Americans, personal vehicles are still the go-to method of holiday travel. A 2022 survey found that 80% of respondents who plan to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday are choosing to drive to their destination. Choosing when to hit the road can impact the overall travel experience.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT)’s Florida Traffic Online website allows us to visualize how people travel during the week leading up and to and following the holiday, which we have termed “the Thanksgiving period.” We took a look at data from the past few years to address the question: what are the best and worst days to travel during Thanksgiving week?

To determine a baseline, we computed “background traffic” for each weekday as the average traffic counts for that day between October 1st and December 15th, excluding the Thanksgiving period.

By comparing traffic volumes during the Thanksgiving period against the background traffic, our analysis found that in 2019, the day before Thanksgiving and the Sunday following Thanksgiving were the busiest travel days. Wednesday saw an 82 percent increase in average traffic volumes while Sunday saw a 72 percent increase. This trend continued in 2022 with the day before Thanksgiving having the highest average traffic counts, with a 67 percent increase in average traffic volumes.

The chart below shows day-to-day changes from 2019 (gray) to 2022 (orange):

Our findings show that the most popular travel days have stayed relatively constant but with a more modest increase over typical traffic in 2022 compared to 2019. This tells us that despite more people on the road in 2022 than in 2019, fewer people are traveling for Thanksgiving. This aligns with the American Automobile Association’s forecast, which predicted a 2.5 percent decrease in Thanksgiving-related auto travel between 2019 and 2022.

Based on FDOT’s data, if you plan to drive to your destination this Thanksgiving, shifting your travel schedule from Tuesday to Friday as opposed to Wednesday to Saturday or Sunday means you are less likely to be stuck in congestion.

2. Book Flights Early on Less Busy Days

If you’re planning to fly during the holidays, paying attention to travel trends can help you avoid major crowds. After a few years of less crowded airports, the airline industry has nearly bounced back to what it was before 2020. Throughout the year, Fridays tend to be the busiest day; however, that does not always hold true during the winter holiday season.

Data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) shows us that during the Thanksgiving period, the busiest days for flying line up with the busiest days for auto travel: the day before (Wednesday) and the Sunday after. According to TSA passenger volumes, the Sunday after Thanksgiving was the busiest airport travel day in 2019, 2021, and 2022.

Air travel patterns are often influenced by the workweek and since Christmas falls on a different day of the week every year, it is a little trickier to predict when the airports will be the most crowded. In 2023, Christmas falls on a Monday, which leads us to believe that the Friday before Christmas, December 22nd, will be especially busy. According to booking data from Chase Travel, the busiest days of airline travel during December 2023 and January 2024 are December 22nd, December 23rd, and December 30th.

Flexibility on when you travel during Thanksgiving or Christmas can help you save money on airline tickets and avoid stress in a crowded airport. Here are a few additional tips to help you navigate airline travel during the holidays:

  • Book as early as possible
  • Set up price alerts to get notified when prices fall (or rise)
  • Use any points you’ve earned on credit cards
  • Try to always book direct flights whenever possible to decrease your chances of weather delays and missed connections
  • Pack any gifts you’re bringing in your carry-on bag

3. Notice #BlackFridayParking

The demand for easy access parking coupled with parking minimums mandated by city zoning codes has created an over-supply of parking spots, with an estimated eight spots available per registered vehicle in the United States.

Urban planning blog Strong Towns points out that Black Friday highlights better than any other day how overbuilt our county’s parking lots are. The #BlackFridayParking hashtag encourages people to snap pictures of parking lots surrounding stores on Black Friday, often showing that they still have available spots.

With local laws requiring developers to provide and maintain more parking than is usually needed, cities can be robbed of financial opportunities such as small businesses and housing, with these lots contributing to empty and underutilized space. An oversupply of parking also perpetuates its own suite of challenges, including increased congestion, suburban sprawl, and negative environmental impacts.

Aerial view of parking lot

The #BlackFridayParking movement encourages people to snap pictures of parking lots surrounding stores on Black Friday, demonstrating the oversupply of parking in our country even on the busiest shopping day of the year.

4. Pay Attention to Innovative Last-Mile Delivery Solutions in Your Area

Online shopping is the norm in today’s world and becomes even more prominent during the holiday season. According to Shopify-Gallup Holiday Shopping Pulse, 93 percent of consumers will buy at least some gifts online and nearly half plan to buy all or most gifts online.

Recently, retailers have focused their energy on improving last-mile delivery, the final phase of the delivery process. It is often the most expensive and time-consuming part of the product’s journey from warehouse to customer’s doorstep. This is especially true around the holidays when there’s a surge in package delivery across the country.

Few companies have invested more in improving their last-mile infrastructure than Amazon with their innovative solutions and in-house logistics team.

This holiday season, your online packages from Amazon might arrive in a variety of ways:

  • Amazon Flex (independent contractors to deliver packages in their own vehicles)
  • Amazon Logistics (the company’s own delivery network and delivery team)
  • Amazon Prime Now (only offered on specific products across select cities)
  • Amazon Lockers (self-service kiosks placed in public areas for customers to collect on their own)

Depending on where you live, this year you might find more small businesses participating in Amazon delivery through the company’s new Amazon Hub Delivery program. This delivery model partners with local businesses to deliver Amazon packages within their communities.

Person making delivery on bike

This holiday season, your online packages from Amazon (and other retailers) might arrive in a variety of ways.

5. Try Something New

Whether you’re in sunny Florida or a blizzard in the Midwest, the holiday season is an opportunity to try alternative forms of transportation. Many cities and municipalities continue to prioritize the building and updating of their bicycle infrastructure to make cycling more accessible.

Andrew Ooms, an associate engineer at Kittelson, is an advocate and supporter of this mode of transportation. His passion for bicycling has followed him throughout his life, including a 10-mile ride across snowy Madison, Wisconsin in –19 degrees Fahrenheit while in graduate school.

He explains, “There’s so much about our car-first culture that doesn’t make sense. I enjoy the efficiency, exercise, and community aspects of biking.”

For those who may feel intimated about trying bicycling in the winter, Andrew recommends dressing in layers, paying close attention to surface conditions, and most importantly, giving it a try: “Put on your warmest gloves, hop on an old mountain bike, and get out there.”

Bikes parked in the snow

Many cities and municipalities continue to prioritize the building and updating of their bicycle infrastructure to make cycling more accessible, no matter the weather!

If your holiday plans require you to travel longer distances than a bike ride will accommodate, we still encourage you to look into alternatives to getting in the car. For example, if you’re traveling to another city in your region, you may be surprised how convenient and enjoyable it is to get there by bus or train—where you don’t have to worry about traffic and can focus your time and attention on the people you’re traveling with.

What are your top travel tips for the 2023 holiday season?