Most weeks of the year, Fridays are the busiest days to fly, checkpoint data from the Transportation Security Administration shows. And just ahead of this Christmas, travelers may face one of the busiest Fridays yet: Friday, Dec. 23.
There are a few reasons why this date is shaping up to be one of the busiest travel days of the year. Not only are Fridays generally popular among flyers, but the day before Christmas Eve is also historically popular, no matter what day of the week it lands on. This year, prepare for a double whammy, as the day before Christmas Eve falls on a Friday.
And that’s not all. One of the eight days of Hanukkah also falls on this day, and Kwanzaa celebrations commence shortly after. It’s possible many travelers will be descending on airports to celebrate many different holidays all in one small block of time.
NerdWallet analyzed the past three years of travel data from the TSA to better understand what travel patterns might look like this December and find the best days to fly around Christmas.
Is Christmas Day a good day to fly?
Airport crowds dramatically increase in the days before and after Christmas, but Christmas Eve and Christmas Day crowds are usually light. Crowds also ease up the farther away from the holiday you get.
Historically, Christmas Day is a smart travel option for those who can catch an early flight and make it to family before presents are unwrapped.
Friday is a busy travel day, period
Fridays always trend busy at airports, no matter the season. It’s the same day that many business travelers are heading home, while vacationers are jetting off for the weekend.
In the first eight months of 2022, the average number of travelers at U.S. airports was 21% higher on Fridays than it was on Tuesdays (the least busy day for air travel, on average).
Pre-Christmas travel also trends busy
Here were the busiest travel days at U.S. airports in the seven days before Dec. 25, for the past three years:
For 2021, the top air travel day leading up to Christmas was Thursday, Dec. 23. That year, Friday air travel was relatively light, presumably because people didn’t want to travel on Christmas Eve.
In 2020, Wednesday, Dec. 23 — the day before Christmas eve — was again the most popular day to fly.
In 2019, Friday, Dec. 20, was the top travel day, despite being somewhat distanced from the holiday, suggesting that travelers were eager to get their celebrations started as soon as the work week ended.
Much like the day before Christmas Eve, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (which is always on a Thursday) has historically been the busiest day to fly before Thanksgiving.
This year, Dec. 23 falls in the middle of, or just before, other winter holidays.
Kwanzaa is a weeklong holiday that occurs every year from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. Then there’s also the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, which this year begins at sundown on Dec. 18 and runs through the evening of Dec. 26. Families looking to celebrate the final days of Hanukkah together might want to travel on Dec. 23, too.
But with big crowds and high prices, Dec. 23 is likely the worst day to travel for all three winter holidays. Here are some alternatives.
The smarter, cheaper departure date when flying for Christmas
If you work a standard Monday-Friday work week that aligns with federal holidays (Christmas is observed on Monday, Dec. 26, this year), then jetting off after work on Friday, Dec. 23, might make the most sense. That’s the schedule most people are likely to follow, and if you join in then you’ll pay — both in terms of airport crowds and in literal price.
But if you can be a bit flexible, then avoid the Friday departure and try these travel days instead.
Fly earlier in the week: If you can work remotely or afford to take days off, do it. According to flight data from travel search engine Expedia, travelers this year will save an average of 15% by departing in the first half of the week instead of on the Thursday or Friday before Christmas — and for some destinations, the savings are closer to 30% to 35%.
Expedia said that the average round-trip flight departing the U.S. bound for Cancun, Mexico, on the Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday before Christmas are $200 cheaper per person than flights departing on Thursday or Friday.
Travel on Christmas Day: NerdWallet looked at TSA passenger statistics for the seven days before and after Christmas over the past three years. Every year, Christmas itself was the day with the least traffic. Couple the low crowds with the hope that everyone will be feeling merry, and flying on Christmas Day might not be so bad.
Book the earliest flight in the day — a tactic NerdWallet recommends as a rule to reduce the chances of a flight delay — and you might even land in time for Christmas dinner.
Travel on Christmas Eve: If it’s important that you’re at your destination by Christmas morning, then leaving on Christmas Eve is your next-best move. While crowds are heavier than those on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve is typically the least-crowded day of the seven days ahead of the holiday.
According to Hopper, a travel booking app, domestic airfares average $100 cheaper to fly out on Christmas Eve versus the day or two before.
During the week of Christmas, the standard rules around the best (and worst) days to fly don’t necessarily apply, and shifting your itinerary by just a couple of days can drastically change the price you pay for holiday travel.