What they won't tell you about Thanksgiving travel

Yeah, it's going to get a little busy, but here's how to survive

Are you ready for the long lines this Thanksgiving? The frayed nerves? The chaos?

Are you ready for your head to explode?

I ask because you might be forgiven for thinking all of that will happen as the Thanksgiving travel season officially begins.

CNN predicts that bad weather could cause headaches (that's a polite way of saying your head will explode). Vox says Thanksgiving will be a mess. And CBS Los Angeles describes Thanksgiving travel as chaos.

It's all wrong.

Those live TV shots from the airport are terribly deceptive. The insider comments from aviation analysts completely miss the point. And I promise you that the headaches — and the exploding heads — will not come from travel this year. 

Your Thanksgiving travel thoughts?

But before I get to that, let's turn this over to you. Do you think you're getting an accurate preview of holiday travel? How has your travel experience so far lined up with expectations? And what should people know about traveling this Thanksgiving that they might not?

Leave a comment

We’ve already had a really interesting discussion about Thanksgiving travel on our Friday Forum.

If you're a full subscriber to Elliott Confidential, you can read what your fellow subscribers are saying and leave a comment. If you're not a subscriber, here's how to sign up and receive a 40 percent discount for an annual subscription (just $60 per year). Note: This week I'm also giving away $150 gift certificates for SCOTTeVEST. There's never been a better time to support this newsletter.

The live shots from LAX are a lie

When you see images like this (courtesy CBS Los Angeles) that proclaim the "Thanksgiving travel rush" is on, how can you not feel a little freaked out? I can't, and I'm 5,000 miles away from the purported madness. This picture scares me.

Yes, more people are flying this week. While observers predict it will be the busiest week for air travel, almost no one is flying to their holiday travel destination. They're driving.

As I reported exclusively earlier this month, the latest AAA Travel forecast says more than 90 percent of Thanksgiving trips will be by car.

So the stand-up shots with the reporters breathlessly declaring that the end of the world is imminent — well, that's hyperbole. They should be doing that live shot from a freeway overpass.

And why aren't they? Maybe it's because some of the assignment editors fly everywhere and they assume so does everyone else. Things with wings are sexy. Automobiles are not. These aviation blinders have existed for years, and I guess I thought the pandemic might change it, but it hasn't. 

It just doesn't matter 

When I click on a holiday travel story, here's what I see:

What does the price of jet fuel have to do with your holiday trip? Absolutely nothing. In fact, Elliott Confidential reader Dan Presser correctly pointed out last week, it's less than nothing. Airlines use rising fuel prices to justify fare increases. But when fuel prices go down, they don't always lower fares. 

So there.

But worse, a discussion about jet fuel and the pace of the aviation industry's recovery from the pandemic distracts from the real issues. And those are? Hang on, I'll get to them in a second.

The mess is in your head

When I hear someone describe Thanksgiving travel as a "mess," I have to roll my eyes. This year, like last year, the real mess won't be happening on the runways and roadways of America. It will be inside your head.

Remember, travel volume is still 5 percent less than pre-pandemic levels in 2019, at least according to AAA. Not great, but not the worst ever, either.

So what makes Thanksgiving travel so stressful? People do.

COVID cases are rising again. Even if you're vaccinated, double-vaccinated, triple-vaccinated and double-masked, there's still a chance you could fall ill during your travels. I deal with that stress every minute of every day. When I meet someone, I instinctively take a step back, and I wonder if they want a wave, fistbump or a hug.

I saw my aunt for the first time in three years yesterday in Lisbon. No hug, just a "hey."

There's also politics. My family is eight time zones away. But if they were any closer, I would have to share a Thanksgiving dinner with them and listen to them talk about stolen elections and vaccine conspiracies and how the criminal justice system came through for Kyle Rittenhouse. And that would definitely make my head explode.

What’s my point? At best, you're getting half-truths about Thanksgiving travel this year. The so-called experts are pontificating about crowded airport terminals and jet fuel when they should be talking about the busy roadways. They think the stress comes from travel, but it comes from other people — specifically, the family you see for Thanksgiving.

And if that doesn't apply to your family, well then congratulations, and would you mind adopting me?

The essential Thanksgiving travel toolkit

Brass tacks, friends. Here's how to survive Thanksgiving travel.

Aim for the pockets. I'm talking to the 90 percent of you who are driving. Basically, it'll feel like a weekend on the road. Avoid taking to the streets on Tuesday, particularly Tuesday evening and Wednesday. Thanksgiving day will be quiet. And please don't drive home on Sunday. That's insanity. Google Maps and Waze have terrific systems that predict traffic. Time your drive for the quieter periods.

Consider a hotel instead of staying with relatives. Hotels, particularly in areas with lots of business travel, still have rooms available. It's an opportunity to de-stress. Take it.

Stay home if you can. I'm not being flippant. If you can avoid traveling during the busiest time of the year, maybe you should. You'll save a lot of time and money — and your head won't explode. Early December or early January is a much better time to visit your family.

What's really going to happen next week? I have no idea. No one really knows. It could be a lot quieter than the experts predict, or not. But don't believe everything you read about Thanksgiving travel, because most of it comes from people who have their heads in the clouds.

Safe travels, my friends.

Alright, over to you. What are you hearing about Thanksgiving travel? Do you believe it? Why or why not? Are you planning to go somewhere, or is this another Zoom holiday? The comments are officially open.

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About the art

Raoul Dufy, the Family Guy and German expressionism influenced this week's illustration. "I wanted to capture fun holiday car travel with masked and unmasked passengers spreading love and COVID-19, of course," says artist Dustin Elliott. "What's more fun than being stuck in holiday traffic, you ask? Being stuck in a room with your unvaccinated loved ones for Turkey Day."