December 15, 2021

‘Tis the Season: More than 109 Million Americans to Travel for the Holidays

AAA predicts crowded roads and skies, with air travel nearly tripling over 2020

Americans who had to cancel getaways and get-togethers last year because of the pandemic are making up for lost time this holiday season. More than 109 million people — an almost 34% increase from 2020 — will travel 50 miles or more as they hit the road, board airplanes or take other transportation out of town between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2.

That dramatic bounce-back — 27.7 million more people traveling — will bring this year’s numbers to 92% of 2019 levels. Airlines will see a 184% increase from last year.

“Americans who canceled their vacations in 2020 want to gather with family and friends for the holidays this year, although they will still be mindful of the pandemic and the new omicron variant,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. “With vaccines widely available, conditions are much different and many people feel a greater level of comfort with travel.”

More than 100 million on the roads and 6 million in the skies

Road trips remain the top mode of travel during the holidays, with over 100 million planning to head to their destinations in cars despite gas costing $1.25 per gallon more than a year ago. More than 6 million people are expected to travel by air, while 3 million people are booking buses, trains and cruises.

2021 Year-end holiday travelers compared to previous years

  Total Automobile Air Other (bus,
train, cruise)
2021 Forecast 109.5 M 100.1 M 6.4 M 2.9 M
2020 Actual 81.7 M 78.5 M 2.3 M 0.98 M
2019 Actual 119.3 M 108 M 7.33 M 3.89
Change (2019 to 2021) -8.2% -7.3% -12.6% -24.8%
Change (2020 to 2021) 33.9% 27.6% 184% 198.7%

Theme parks, beaches and Vegas are popular destinations

AAA booking data through October shows that domestically, theme-park-heavy destinations like Orlando, Florida, and Anaheim, California, top the list of popular travel spots. Las Vegas, New York City and several other Florida cities also rank high.

U.S. destinations

Orlando, FL
Anaheim, CA
Las Vegas, NV
New York, NY; Kahului, Maui, HI (tie)
Honolulu, HI
Miami, FL
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Tampa, FL
Phoenix, AZ
San Diego, CA

Higher prices this holiday season

With so many planning to travel, AAA suggests booking flights, car rentals, accommodations and other activities as early as possible.

Air — A recent analysis of AAA’s flight booking data revealed that ticket prices for Christmas week are up 5% from last year, with the average lowest round-trip fare of $154 for major U.S. destinations. For those flying around New Year’s, prices are up considerably more – 27% with the average lowest fare at $182. Those wanting to book last-minute travel will find the best fares about two weeks before their travel date but keep in mind availability may be limited.

Hotels — Mid-range hotel rates have increased 36% for AAA Approved hotels for Christmas travel, with an average nightly rate of $320. For New Year’s Eve, the average nightly rate is $267.

Car Rentals — For car rentals, the average rate has increased 20% for Christmas travel, with the average lowest daily rate of $130. It has increased 65% for New Year’s, for an average lowest daily rate of $103. Rental car companies have been re-building their inventory following a shortage over the summer, but with the increased demand expected around this time of the year, it’s important to book as early as possible.

Rushing home for the holidays

INRIX, in collaboration with AAA, predicts only marginal delays overall throughout the holiday week. However, major metro areas across the U.S. could see more than double the delays versus typical drive times, with drivers in New York City likely to experience more than three times the delays.

“With kids out of school and many Americans taking extended time off for the holidays, drivers will experience incremental delays throughout the week. Although congestion will be overall lighter than normal, knowing when and where major delays will likely happen will help save time and reduce stress this holiday season,” said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at INRIX.

Daily Worst and Best Times to Travel

Date Worst travel time Best travel time
12/23/21 12:00–6:00pm After 7:00pm
12/24/21 2:00–6:00pm Before 1:00pm
12/25/21 Minimal congestion expected  
12/26/21 1:00–7:00pm Before 12:00pm
12/27/21 5:00–6:00pm Before 1:00pm
12/28/21 1:00–7:00pm Before 12:00pm
12/29/21 1:00–7:00pm Before 11:00am
12/30/21 1:00–7:00pm Before 12:00pm
12/31/21 2:00–4:00pm Before 1:00pm, after 5:00pm
1/1/22 Minimal congestion expected  
1/2/22 2:00–6:00pm Before 1:00pm
    Source: INRIX

Forecasted numbers may change

AAA notes that the actual number of travelers could fluctuate as we approach the holidays. Some people may decide to stay home if there is an increase in reported COVID-19 cases or because of concerns about the omicron variant, while others may note the progress in vaccinations and make last-minute decisions to travel.

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