By Kellie Hwang, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
November 19, 2021
After a dramatic downsizing last year due to the COVID pandemic, Thanksgiving travel is poised to make a near-total turnaround in the Bay Area and U.S., according to airport officials and industry experts.
Last Thanksgiving, the worst COVID-19 surges of the pandemic were getting underway, slamming the brakes on traditional holiday air and road trips.
This year, with 69% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated, things are starting to look far more normal. According to the American Automobile Association, overall travel — including air, road, bus, rail and cruises — is expected to come within 5% of 2019 pre-pandemic levels.
In all, AAA says 53.4 million people are predicted to travel this year, up 13% from last year. Air travel, which was severely curtailed over the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday, is expected to rise a whopping 80%.
While many may be eagerly anticipating their holiday visits and celebrations, they are likely to encounter heavy traffic on the road and crowds at airports for the first time in a long time, experts say.
The Transportation Security Administration says it's ready for the rush, but air travelers will also encounter some pandemic restrictions and should plan on security screening to take a little extra time. TSA Administrator David Pekoske also expressed concern about a rise in incidents of unruly behavior by passengers.
Here's what you can expect, and tips on how to manage your journey to keep it as stress-free as possible.
A strong comeback in California
In California, AAA expects total travel to come within 3% of pre-pandemic 2019 volume, with 7 million people expected to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday this year — a 14% increase from 2020.
"Out of those seven million travelers 6.1 million are expected to drive, 800,000 are expected to fly and 128,000 are expected to take other means of travel like cruises, trains and buses," spokesperson Sergio Avila wrote in an email.
San Francisco International Airport has continued its rebound since summer, recovering more than 50% of its pre-pandemic passenger levels, said airport spokesperson Doug Yakel. He said airline schedules show "continued confidence," and SFO anticipates reaching 60% to 65% of pre-pandemic passenger levels during the holiday season.
Oakland International Airport is expecting to reach 80% of the passenger traffic recorded during the 2019 Thanksgiving holidays, according to spokesperson Kaley Skantz. An estimated 167,000 passengers are expected to travel during the Nov. 24-28 holiday period, twice as many as last year, she said.
Mineta San Jose International Airport is planning for 400,000 travelers during the Thanksgiving holiday period, which it records from Nov. 19-28, said airport spokesperson Keonnis Taylor. That would be more than three times the number in 2020, when 125,000 people went through the airport, and closer to the airport record of 546,000 passengers set in 2019.
The busiest days and times to travel
Yakel said SFO is bracing for an early travel rush. The Friday before the holiday, Nov. 19, is expected to "be the busiest single day for Thanksgiving travel" at the airport, with 50,000 passengers estimated to go through security checkpoints.
"This has been the trend for over 10 years now, as most schools give the entire week off," Yakel said.
Taylor also anticipates Mineta San Jose will be slammed on Friday — the "busiest travel day this year."
At Oakland International Airport, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is predicted to be the busiest travel day, followed by Sunday, Nov. 28, as travelers return home, Skantz said. She said 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on both of those days is expected to be the busiest time frame, but stressed that passengers are still encouraged to arrive at the airport early.
Avila said AAA also expects the day before Thanksgiving to be the busiest road travel day, "with the heaviest traffic in the Bay Area happening when travelers are mixing with those who are getting out of work in the afternoon."
According to traffic analytics firm Inrix, the best times to travel by car during Thanksgiving week are after 9 p.m. Wednesday, before 11 a.m. Thursday and Friday, and before noon Saturday and Sunday.
Surging gas prices
Before you hit the road, be prepared for sticker shock when you stop to fill up your tank: Gas prices are at all-time highs.
"Travelers in California can expect to be paying the highest prices for gasoline that we've seen on record since AAA started tracking gas prices in the year 2000," Avila said. "High crude oil prices and increased demand have been the main drivers for higher prices across the country. California remains the most expensive state to buy gasoline."
Consumer Price Index data shows the gas prices surged an average of 49.6% for U.S. cities and 39.5% for the San Francisco metropolitan area from October 2020 to October 2021. Gas price tracking app GasBuddy reports that Bay Area drivers are paying the highest per-gallon prices in the nation, reaching an average of $4.86 per gallon in San Francisco on Tuesday, compared to the state average of $4.73 and national average of $3.42.
Using gas pricing apps from AAA and GasBuddy can help travelers find the cheapest options along their route. Jamie Court, president of nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, suggests filling up at an independent, unbranded station, where gas prices are often lower. AAA also recommends keeping your vehicle well-maintained so it will perform at peak gas efficiency.
Travelers are encouraged to make preparations ahead of departure. Road travelers should monitor traffic, and air travelers should check for any flight changes before heading out.
Avila offered a reminder that the "travel landscape has changed significantly in the last year" due to the pandemic.
"It's important for travelers to do their research and take extra time to plan out their trips," he said. "Availability of certain amenities and services travelers are used to may be unavailable or may have limited hours or availability."
Pandemic precautions are still advised, with leaders and health officials fearing another winter coronavirus surge as case rates across the state and country trend upward.
If you plan to fly, remember that the federal mask mandate is still in effect, and all passengers over 2 years old are required to wear face masks at airports, on all flights, and on public transportation. Staff at SFO will pass out free masks to anyone who needs one.
The airports continue to use physical distancing markers and protective barriers at high traffic areas, and hand sanitizer stations are set up throughout the terminals. SFO also has onsite rapid testing and free vaccines.
Air passengers are recommended to arrive at the airport two hours prior to domestic flights, and three hours before international flights.
Kellie Hwang is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]Twitter: @KellieHwang