Thanksgiving Holiday Air Travel Forecast For 2017

RewardExpert analyzed Department of Transportation data published by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics over the past five years to give travelers a better idea of where and when the most delays have been reported, and which airlines are most likely to get you to your destination on-time.

Leave on Saturday before the big day

If you can leave early and stay for a while, you are least likely to encounter delays on the Saturday before the holiday. Don't even think about Sunday, though: You'll run into the highest rate of flight delays before the holiday if you do travel that day.

Waiting until the last minute pays off

Analysis of the data shows the lowest rates of delayed flights on Thanksgiving Day. It makes sense if you think about it – nobody wants to travel on the actual holiday. Airlines have to fill the seats somehow; that's why they offer discounts. The same goes for every holiday, including Christmas.

Don’t fly on Tuesday before Thanksgiving

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving is the second-worst day to fly. Surprisingly, data shows that you are more likely to arrive on time if you wait until Wednesday. Over the past five years an average of 84.9 percent of all flights on Thanksgiving Eve have been on-time.

Skip town early on Black Friday

When heading back home it's a good idea to skip town early on Black Friday. You'll have the best chance of avoiding delays. Otherwise, if you don't catch a flight on Saturday, you can expect heavy delays starting with Sunday, which will get worse before they get better.

Don’t go back Monday or Tuesday after the holiday

Last year, the Monday after Thanksgiving was the worst day to fly back. This year, Tuesday is likely to be just as bad, if not worse. Flip a coin. Either way you'll be spending a lot of time at airports or on the road. Be prepared and stay calm. 

Most improved budget carriers

Budget carriers Southwest and Frontier showed the most improvement last year, reducing delays by 1.9 percent and 0.85 percent, respectively. JetBlue reported the greatest increase in delayed departures and arrivals, which increased by 5.7 percent. While Southwest reported on-time performance last year just behind United, its average on-time rate still lags. You may have better luck getting to your destination on time flying with a budget carrier this year, but don't count on it.

The major airlines may not be the right choice

Two of the three major airlines reported slight increases in delayed flights during Thanksgiving 2016, with only American Airlines reporting improvements in timely arrivals and departures. Delta still outperforms both United and American by about 5 percent, with 88.3 percent of flights on-time, compared to 82.9 percent for United and 82.8 percent for American.

Don’t fly into Newark or San Francisco International

Bad news for New Jersey and NYC-metro area travelers: Delays increased sharply at Newark's Liberty International Airport last year, affecting more than one quarter of all flights last Thanksgiving. Newark now takes second place for worst on-time performance record behind delay-plagued San Francisco International Airport.

It’s really best to just go to Hawaii

Hawaiian Airlines continues to have the best on-time performance record, despite a 3.8 percent rise in delays last Thanksgiving, with 90.9 percent of flights departing or arriving on-time. With an average on-time rate of 93.9 percent, Hawaiian Airlines stands out at the top of the pack. Honolulu airport also tops the ranking for best airports for on-time performance.

Fly into these airports, if possible

After the airport in Honolulu, the best performing airports in terms of on-time flights are Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Southwest Florida International Airport, and Salt Lake City International Airport. Their best days are either November 23 or 24, with the worst dates ranging from November 26 to 28 for most of them.