Thanksgiving travel set for a big surge, but it's not too late to fly

Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa
Source: Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa
Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa

As an exhausting election cycle draws to a close, the holiday travel season kicks into gear — which may feel more hectic than usual for a few reasons.

Thanks to lower airfares, U.S. airlines will carry 27.3 million passengers over the 12-day Thanksgiving holiday travel period (Nov 18-Nov 29), reports airline trade organization Airlines for America (A4A). That's up 2.5 percent, the equivalent of 55,000 more passengers a day, from last year's travel period.

A4A said airlines have increased capacity to accommodate the extra traffic, but expect the skies and airports to be crowded. November 27 is predicted to be the peak travel day, with airports in big cities from New York to Los Angeles — and just about everywhere in between — expected to be the busiest.

Since Election Day, interest in relocating to Canada has become a running joke — or deadly serious since the country's immigration website crashed amid a surge of traffic from U.S. internet addresses last week. For that reason, airports north of the U.S. border may see brisker than usual business this holiday.

Cheapflights.com reports that between 6 p.m. ET on Election Day through 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, searches for one-way flights from the U.S. to Canada were up more than 1,000 percent over the average volume during the comparable time frame over the last four weeks.

There were 500 percent postmidnight search spikes for one-way flights to Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa and Germany on election night as well.


Santa Claus waves to the crowd during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
Getty Images
Santa Claus waves to the crowd during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

If you've decided to fly at the last minute, a cheap fare is still possible.

"Most searches will be done on the 11th and 12th, but most people will commit on the 13th, after thoroughly looking and comparing the previous prices offered," said CheapOair's travel expert Tom Spagnola.

Many airlines look at their inventory capacity with a 10-to-14-day window to determine when to lower fares for last minute shoppers, he said, "making the 13th the 'tipping point' for those committing to a Thanksgiving trip."

Separately, travel analysts from Expedia report that New York City and Las Vegas top the list of holiday destinations this year.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade draws 3.5 million to New York City each year, but you can avoid the crowds and still see the giant character balloons by watching the balloon inflation the day before the parade (November 23) in the streets around the American Museum of Natural History.

"The inflation takes place from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.," says NYC & Company, "though earlier in the afternoon is the best time to see the inflation process as by about 9 p.m., most of the balloons should be fully inflated."

In Sin City, you can escape the casino and nightclub scene for a while at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, where the 4,200-square-foot Boulevard Pool overlooking The Strip transforms into an ice rink on November 21, complete with fire pit, s'mores and cocktails.


Those seeking healing R&R during the Thanksgiving week might also consider destinations like the northern New Mexico town of Taos.

It is home to spas offering everything from massages and facials to hot baths and mud soaks — and most all are open during Thanksgiving weekend. The Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, which opened in 1868 and is one of the oldest natural health resorts in the U.S., is a good tourist bet, as is opening day at Taos Ski Valley.

Another place to head to if you want to avoid the holiday crowds is the Texas Hill Country River Region, where you can book a cabin near the site of the largest tree in Texas, and where fall foliage hikes through Garner State Park are an option straight through December.

For a more upscale escape, the Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole in Wyoming offers guests stargazing excursions and customized, four-hour luxury SUV wildlife expeditions (with food) in Grand Teton National Park, the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the National Elk Refuge, home to more than 5,000 elk.

And while others may be heading to the malls on the day after Thanksgiving, if you're in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you can avoid the crowds and relax with fresh cider and microbrews from more than two dozen of the Midwest's craft breweries at the Black Friday Beerfest at the Harley-Davidson Museum.



— Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.