What The Record Breaking Thanksgiving Weekend Air Travel Could Mean For Your December Holiday Plans

Congratulations, you can proudly consider yourself a record breaker if you were among the millions who took a domestic flight the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2023. According to the TSA, over 2.9 million individuals were screened in U.S. airports nationwide that very day, marking the highest recorded figure in the agency's two-decade history. This milestone superseded 2019 numbers, signaling the resurgence of air travel.

Surprisingly, there were fewer disruptions than anticipated despite the high volume of people and the winter storm warnings in the central part of the country. Data from FlightAware noted that there were only about 55 cancelations. This can likely be attributed to airlines' preparation efforts, with Airlines for America telling the Los Angeles Times that carriers have been working double time to improve service, including hiring more staff. The TSA, too, assured travelers that they are ramping up their efforts to mitigate the chaos of holiday travel. "We are ready for the anticipated volumes and are working closely with our airline and airport partners to make sure we are prepared for this busy holiday travel season," TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement.

To help passengers have a bearable time at airports, the agency advised arriving early, familiarizing yourself with new screening technology, and reading up on what can and cannot be part of your carry-on. Apart from these, you should also prepare for possible cancellations and delays and take steps to minimize your time spent in airport queues.

Create a plan to avoid (and endure) possible delays

While a low number of flight cancelations during the peak of air travel is commendable, it's hard to say if the situation will be the same for December travels. Unpredictable weather and potential technical challenges can result in further disruptions. To avoid bearing the brunt of these possibilities, you can add an extra day to your trip for more flexibility and avoid layovers. You may also want to consider flying on Christmas Day itself, as fewer people fly that day. Another option is to schedule your flight for the early morning. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), morning flights experience the least disruptions and offer a wider array of rebooking alternatives.

If it just so happens that you're faced with a delay or a cancelation, don't panic. Some airlines, like United, encourage passengers to use their respective apps to explore rebooking options and claim meal and hotel vouchers. The credit card you used to book the flight may also be your saving grace and reimburse you for expenses incurred during the delay. Additionally, refer to DOT's customer service dashboard for an overview of compensations that airlines have outlined in their policies for "controllable" cancelations and delays. That way, you can hold them accountable for what they promised to provide.

Do some prep work to shorten your time at the airport

"I'm so excited to wait in line for hours at the airport!" said no one ever. Unfortunately, waiting in lines is an unavoidable part of holiday travel, especially if you're flying in and out of the busiest airports in the country. To minimize your wait times, the most obvious solution is to sign up for services that will expedite your journey through security: TSA PreCheck ($78-$85 for five years), Global Entry ($100 for five years), or Clear ($189 for one year). While they involve a screening process and come with a price — note some credit cards offer reimbursement when you sign up for one of these services — they're well worth the investment, as they help you bypass lengthy queues.

If you're not willing to pay, Clear has the cost-free Reserve program, which allows passengers to book a timeslot in the TSA security line ahead of time, eliminating the need to wait upon arrival at the airport. However, it's only available at select airports, including LAX, JFK, and DEN. Another straightforward solution is, of course, to arrive at the airport early and give yourself ample time to check in, pass security, and even grab a cup of coffee. The good news is the MyTSA app offers real-time updates on possible delays and wait times, so you can manage your expectations before you gear up for what is sure to be a stressful airport adventure. Good luck!