While not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, U.S. holiday travelers can expect to see many more people on the roads and in airport queues over the long Thanksgiving weekend this year.

AAA projects some 53.4 million people will head out on holiday sojourns in the coming days, a 13% increase over 2020 and only 5% shy of 2019 Thanksgiving travel volumes.

Of those spending the holidays elsewhere this year, 48.3 million will pile in their cars, and 4.1 million will take to the skies as COVID-19 restrictions have been widely lifted and consumer confidence is on the rise.

Aldo Vazquez, spokesman for AAA Utah, said those planning travel for Thanksgiving this year should be sure to “pack your patience.”

“Travel volumes have recovered within 5% of pre-pandemic levels, and air travel has almost entirely recovered from its dramatic decline ... up 80% over last year,” Vazquez said in a press release. “Those traveling this Thanksgiving can expect to face more crowded roads and airports than they’ve seen in some time.”

Unveiling America’s newest airport: Here’s what $4 billion did for Salt Lake City hub
This artwork at the Salt Lake City International Airport could win a big award — with your help
A ‘river’ tunnel. More gates. Here’s what’s next for Salt Lake’s new airport

Getting back out into the world will also be a more expensive endeavor this year, thanks in part to rising fuel costs.

On Tuesday, AAA reported the average price across the country for a gallon of regular gasoline was just over $3.40. But fuel costs across the western U.S. were significantly higher than that, with the average at Utah pumps running near $3.70 per gallon.

UDOT reports it will halt all major construction projects over the Thanksgiving weekend and expects the heaviest on-road volumes happening Wednesday and Sunday.

Rising fuel prices are set to have impacts on the cost of air travel as well.

Data from Adobe’s Digital Economy Index, reported by Forbes earlier this month, reflected domestic flight prices in October were just 7% below 2019 levels before the pandemic. Adobe tracks transactions from six of the top 10 U.S. airlines.

The cost to fly has been moving up from August and September, which were respectively 11% and 13% below 2019 levels. Overall, airline tickets could be up nearly 25% for Thanksgiving travel compared to last year.

Delta Air Lines aircraft are lined up at Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City on Nov. 18, 2021.
Delta Air Lines aircraft are lined up at Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

If your gateway to a holiday away from home is the newly revamped Salt Lake City International Airport, a little planning is in order.

For those who have yet to navigate the recently updated facility, airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer suggests travelers download the SLC Airport smartphone app or consult maps posted to the airport’s website. Things have changed, Volmer noted, and a bigger complex means getting from parking or drop-off, through security and to departure gates just takes longer than it used to.

Also, Volmer notes domestic travelers should plan on arriving two hours ahead of their boarding time and international passengers should allow for three hours ahead of scheduled boarding.

Volmer said a little extra time at the airport gives first-timers a chance to peruse the novel architecture, fresh art installations and a slew of new shops and restaurants.

Some concerns have been floated over the past week or so about federal employee vaccine mandates potentially leading to staff shortages for airport security and screening operations conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration. Those mandates took effect on Monday, leading to speculation that holiday travel could be slowed if significant numbers of TSA employees were unable to report for work under the new rules.

Matthew Yeates, a Transportation Security Administration officer, helps travelers at the security checkpoint at Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

But on Tuesday, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein tweeted that most of the agency’s employees were vaccinated and the mandate would not result in slowdowns for the expected wave of holiday travelers.

“Approximately 93 percent of TSA employees are in compliance with today’s deadline for the federal employee vaccine mandate and exemption requirements,” Farbstein tweeted. “The employee vaccine mandate will not impact holiday travel.”

That’s great news for the Salt Lake airport, which is expecting 25,000 passengers on Wednesday, up from 13,400 last year and just shy of the 26,500 in 2019. Sunday is also expected to be a high-volume day at the airport.

Volmer offered some additional tips for holiday air travelers:

  • Before leaving for the airport, passengers are reminded to check the airline’s website or app to ensure the flight is on time and has not been delayed due to weather.
  • Passengers are encouraged to check in electronically prior to leaving for the airport to expedite the process once they’re at the facility.
  • SLC has three areas to check luggage, depending on the airline, as well as limited skycap service. The SLC International app map shows the location of those luggage check points.
  • Parking can be reserved in advance for the airport parking garage or long-term facility, here.