Guide to Thanksgiving Travel: Best Days, Airlines, and Airports to Avoid Delays
Image: iStockphoto/Anna Bryukhanova

If you’re planning to fly home this Thanksgiving, the best time to book your Thanksgiving travel plans was the week of Oct. 31. For those that are running a little late, there might just be a silver lining.

RewardExpert and ValuePenguin analyzed five years’ worth of flight data for 50 major US airports and the top 10 domestic airlines to come up with a pair of valuable resources about the flight-departure times for airports and carriers.

We’ve distilled those two site’s findings into a guide that will help you know when to fly, which airline carriers to use and which cities to avoid for layovers and departures.

After all, the last thing you want is to be stuck in an airport while your family is gathered ’round the table, getting ready to devour a turkey feast.

Best and Worst Days for Thanksgiving Travel

Best Non-Thanksgiving Departure Day: Monday, Nov. 19th

According to RewardExpert, the Monday before Thanksgiving is said to be the best day for early birds who are hoping to arrive a few days ahead of time, since this day historically shows the second-least number of delays.

Dom Scarlet, chief editor at travel deals site TravelPirates, says flying out on Monday may also save you money on flights on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before Thanksgiving.

“While it may seem like the best time to fly, the weekend before Thanksgiving is just as crowded at the airport — and a steep price increase from the normal route fare,” Scarlet said. “Fly out after the weekend for a slight fare price break and a little time to yourself before the holidays.”

Best Overall Departure Day: Thanksgiving Day

According to the Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics from 2011-2015, flights leaving on Thanksgiving morning are the least likely to experience delays. (That’s the day when Thanksgiving fares typically are cheapest, too.)

Worst to Travel There: Friday, Nov. 16th

ValuePenguin noted that the Friday before Thanksgiving is considered the absolute worst day to fly. Though, the reports don’t indicate if this is due to weather, crowds, or a combination of both.

Best to Travel Home: Friday, Nov. 23rd

While shoppers are hitting the stores, Black Friday is a good day to fly home. According to RewardExpert, delays get worse the deeper you get into the post-Thanksgiving weekend.

Worst to Travel Home: Sunday, Nov. 25th

Flying home on a Sunday after Thanksgiving presents you with the highest probability of delayed departures.

“As far as flying out after all the turkey’s gone, the Sunday after Thanksgiving tends to see the greatest delay times, followed by Monday,” ValuePenguin pointed out.

Best Airlines for Holiday Travel

Among the major carriers, RewardExpert ranked Delta Airlines at the top of the list for punctuality, with 88.30 percent of its flights taking off or arriving within 15 minutes of the scheduled time.

United Airlines came in at No. 4 with 82.98 percent of flights leaving within a quarter-hour of the scheduled time. Third place in legacy carriers when it comes to punctuality is American Airlines at 82.96 percent of flights having timely departures.

» Related: Low-Cost Carrier vs. Legacy Airline

Legacy airlines are listed separately because they make up the bulk of flights in the sky. However, passengers who can get to their desired destination on an alternate carrier might want to consider Hawaiian Airlines, since the carrier came in at number one, with 93.94 percent of departures on time.

The entire ranking is as follows:

  1. Hawaiian Airlines (93.94 percent)
  2. Delta Airlines (88.30 percent)
  3. Alaska Airlines (85.88 percent)
  4. United Airlines (82.98 percent)
  5. American Airlines (82.96 percent)
  6. JetBlue Airways (81.17 percent)
  7. SkyWest Airlines (80.54 percent)
  8. Southwest Airlines (79.79 percent)
  9. Frontier Airlines (78.87 percent)

Best and Worst Airports for Thanksgiving Travel

Choosing the airline with the best on-time percentages is a huge step toward ensuring solid departure times as you fly to see friends or relatives for Thanksgiving, just as it is when you’re departing back home.

However, airports can foil your holidays – some are much worse around Thanksgiving than others.

According to ValuePenguin’s 2018 travel research based on four years of data from the Department of Transportation, the following five airports have the worst on-time departure rates before:

  • Newark: 39.2% late
  • Palm Beach: 37.3% late
  • La Guardia (NYC): 36.1% late
  • Pittsburgh: 35.6% late
  • JFK (NYC): 35.4% late

The research indicates that three of the nation’s busiest airports are a nightmare during the Thanksgiving season: Newark, La Guardia, and JFK. It’s important to note that the DOT’s data shows that all airports face days where late fights are far more prevalent.

For example, the worst day for departures at Newark saw 81.4% of flights depart late.

Palm Beach, by contrast, is a smaller airport that faces huge delays, which may be due to the fact that the city has a lot of retirees who may be traveling to see their children and grandchildren.

» Related: 7 Things to Do That Make Long Layovers Fun

While Pittsburgh isn’t a massive city, it has its fair share of late flights. So, if you’re planning to travel around Thanksgiving, you may want to avoid flights with layovers in these five cities.

Pro tip: The next five worst airports on their list are Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Dallas-Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, and Boston.

Tips for Avoiding Thanksgiving Flight Delays

We’ve mentioned the effect weather can have on flight timeliness, but that’s not the only factor.

Mechanical issues, airspace congestion and even things like crew scheduling can also get in the way.

Although there’s never a way to guarantee you’ll be on time, here’s how to lessen your chances of being delayed:

1. Book a Morning Flight

When booking your flight, try to fly in the morning. Airlines generally have the ability to “reset” their system overnight. That’s because planes that start falling behind in schedule mid-day create a ripple effect, throwing off all the day’s remaining flights from coast to coast. However, come night time, they have a chance to catch up.

Additionally, aircraft are given a once over at night by maintenance. This means that those heading out on the first flight of the day are less likely to run into a mechanical issue that causes delays.

This is supported by the Department of Transportation reports that show the largest US airports as having on-time arrivals peak between 7 a.m. and 7:59 am., with 89.6 percent of flights arriving on time.

By 2 pm, that rate dips below 80 percent for the first time, and by 6 pm, it’s dipped below 70 percent.

Pro Tip: Ask for an originator flight. These are the first flights out and are often not delayed. Just know that it’s difficult to spot these online so you might need to call an airline rep and ask which flights are the first out that day.

2. Book Nonstop Flights When Possible

Every connection is an extra opportunity for delays. Even if you’re cruising through an airport that’s rarely affected by poor weather conditions, ground delays can occur for any number of reasons, and there’s an increased chance that you’ll end up stuck for hours.

If your flight makes a stop, or you need to rely on a connecting flight to get to your destination, there is a greater chance for a delay.

3. Try to Depart from a Smaller Airport

Flying in and out of major hubs, such as Chicago O’Hare and LAX in Los Angeles increases the chance of delays since heavier runway traffic presents a higher chance that your plane will get stuck in line should things go wrong.

According to travel search site Hipmunk, smaller airports can save you money, too. Their research indicates that you can save as much as 31% flying out of New York’s La Guardia airport instead of JFK.

4. Don’t Create a Hold-Up with Your Carry-On Items

Flights have a scheduled time that they’re supposed to leave the gate which directly affects their spot in line on the runway. While the weather is the most obvious cause of delays, sometimes passengers can cause the tipping point between a flight that could have left on time and one that’s late.

Other articles will tell you to observe all baggage and security rules and regulations closely, pack your carry-on bags so that they’re easily searched or scanned, and be sure to remove your shoes, coat, and metal items when heading through security.

While that’s good advice, the truth is that failing to go through security in an efficient manner only hurts yourself—the plane has no problem leaving without you.

Instead, passengers cause delays with their carry-on luggage. Especially over the holidays, as everyone travels with a year’s worth of winter coats, gifts, fresh fish, flowers in vases, even kittens hidden in their backpacks.

Even without an absurd assortment of goods, the overhead bins are a source of trouble and delays. That’s because the aircraft isn’t allowed to leave its gate until all bins are closed.

This leaves your flight attendants scrambling in a real-time game of Tetris as they yank and shift oddly shaped bags of unknown weights into submission while attempting to make an on-time departure.

» Related: How to Get Through the Airport Faster and With Minimal Hassle

Tips for Enduring Flight Delays

Seasoned travelers have almost certainly experienced flight delays and likely already follow a few preventative steps. What can you do to prepare for a possible delay?

First, check the status of your flight before going to the airport. You can call the airline or check flight status online. If you notice delays online, contact the airline directly for more information. Either way, it’s better to know of any possible delays before leaving home.

Despite your best efforts, there’s always a chance you could end up stuck at the airport if a delay occurs. To avoid making a bad situation worse, be sure to pack medications, medical devices, and necessary personal items in your carry-on luggage or purse so that you can get to them easily.

Most airports have restaurants and retail stores, but if you’re not familiar with your flight’s destination facility, pack any special food items you may need. If possible, have a backup travel plan in place in case of a cancellation.

If your flight is canceled or so full that the airline has overbooked, this could be a good opportunity to earn a travel voucher for a free future flight, says Brent Kocken and Rachael Young, founders of Charlotte-based travel agency Journey Genies.

» Related: Bumped Off Your Flight? Your Guide to Compensation

“Flights will be full during this time and, due to factors such as weather delays and travelers not making their original flight, airlines may be offering travel vouchers to those who are willing to take a later flight,” they said. “If your travel plans are at all flexible and you are able to wait and take a later flight, you can volunteer to be bumped from your flight and receive a travel voucher good for a future trip.”

At the end of the day, there’s no way to completely avoid flight delays. A natural disaster, mechanical failure, or airline mix-up could occur at any time of year. However, with smart planning and a little flexibility, you can improve your odds of getting to your Thanksgiving destination on time.

Bottom line? Hope for the best, but remember to pack your patience, just in case.

» For more information and tips, head to our 2018 Holiday Shopping and Travel Guide.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.