Holiday travel is hard. You must contend with the crowds, the high prices — and the weather.
This holiday season, I’ll probably see it all. Snow in the Pacific Northwest for Thanksgiving. Thunderstorms in Chile for Christmas and stifling midsummer heat in Buenos Aires for New Year’s.
There will be chaos, too. There’s always chaos.
The busy 2023 holiday travel season, which runs from today until early January, will be one for the record books. With wars, Congressional gridlock, and post-pandemic “revenge” travel throngs to contend with, you might even be tempted to stay home.
Fortunately, this guide to holiday travel in 2023 will help you get through it. And before I go any further, I have some good news: If you’re reading this now, there’s still time to book a reasonably-priced airline ticket.
When are the travel holidays in the United States?
Holiday travel in the United States centers on three holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
If you can imagine the high prices and chaos of summer condensed into a single week, that’s Thanksgiving. It’s an 11-day period that runs from the week before Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday. It is busy — and expensive. The Monday before Thanksgiving and the Friday after Thanksgiving are the best days to travel by car. If you live outside the U.S. and are considering a visit, avoid the last week of November.
The Christmas holiday is spread over a week to 10 days, with Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the previous and following weekends affected. The last big travel holiday of the year tends to have the most treacherous weather, at least in the U.S., with ice and snow leading to flight delays and cancellations and snarling traffic in large cities. And since Christmas is celebrated worldwide, the only place you can go to escape the chaos is Asia or the Middle East, where Christmas is not celebrated as a religious holiday.
Noteworthy event: The Christmas holiday has started encroaching on New Year’s, at least in terms of pricing and availability. Don’t expect a lull during the last week of December. Aim for the second weekend in January if you want better prices and less traffic.
New Year’s Day
The first big travel holiday period of the year lasts only a few days, from December 30 through January 2. It is the quietest of all the winter holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s).
Noteworthy event: Airlines start their fare sales toward the end of the year. The first week of January is often called “dead week” because it’s so quiet, which means more deals on hotels, tours and other activities.
What’s the outlook for holiday travel in 2023?
In terms of prices, the outlook is reasonably good.
Airfares are falling
Average Thanksgiving airfares are down 14 percent from last year (to $268 per ticket), and Christmas airfares are down 12 percent (to $400 per ticket), according to Hopper.
Car rental rates are mostly down, too
Car rental rates average $42 a day during Thanksgiving, a 17 percent decline from last year. The daily rate at Christmas is $10 higher, about the same as last year.
But hotel prices are higher
Hotel rates for Thanksgiving stays in the United States currently average $206 per night (up 9 percent from last year). The average room rate for Christmas is $233 a night (up 7 percent).
Gas prices will remain steady
The Department of Energy predicts fuel prices will remain steady in the United States, despite the turmoil in the Middle East. Fuel prices should remain steady at around $3.62 per gallon.
What’s less clear is how travel will go during the holidays. Last summer saw scores of flight cancellations and consumer complaints. (We don’t know how many because the Department of Transportation is still busy counting them.)
Why do people travel during the holidays?
Most holiday travel is to see friends and family, and it’s usually non-negotiable. You’ll be home for Christmas — or for Thanksgiving. So you have to brave the traffic and the long lines, because the whole family will be there waiting for you. (I get that, and I’m not going to try to convince you to stay home — although that is the only guaranteed way to avoid travel hassles.)
Are the holidays a good time to travel?
No. Whether you drive, fly or take the train, you will probably experience higher prices than the fall and crowds in the United States. However, you can avoid the holiday travel craze with a few simple strategies:
Aim for the days in between
The week before Thanksgiving, the two weeks before Christmas, and the week after New Year’s are quieter times to travel. But still, it’s not a slow time of the year. Fares will remain high in comparison with early fall and there will be traffic on the roads. But if you must travel during the holiday period, those are the days to do it. Once you get into the “red” zone of the days immediately before and after the holiday, you will pay more and wait longer. Avoid the red zone at all costs.
Get out early
Board the first flight of the day. Start your road trip at the crack of dawn. Why? Because everyone else will wait to have a leisurely breakfast before leaving, and that’s when the crowds start to build. Another benefit: Normally, the aircraft is parked at the gate the night before, so you will usually have an on-time departure (unless you’re snowed in). These strategies can seriously lessen your stress when you travel during the holidays.
Look, holiday travel advice is recycled every year and rarely changes. But if there’s something new, you will read it here first.
About this story
I’ve written this article so many times — and for many news outlets — that I’ve lost count. So I decided to create my ultimate guide to holiday travel one last time. (I always say it’s my last time, and then next year comes along, so please don’t hold me to it.) This is the product of three decades of holiday travel and writing about other people’s mistakes. But if I’ve missed something, please let me know. This story was researched, written and fact-checked by Christopher Elliott with help from his friends at Priceline and Hopper. Andy Smith and his team edited the article, and Dustin Elliott illustrated it.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at [email protected].