Thanksgiving travelers, brace yourselves.
Chicago’s airports, airlines and roads will likely see a rush of passengers over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and AAA estimates the number of Illinois travelers will be among the highest in recent memory.
The anticipated travel surge is expected to cap a year of strong travel demand. But Thanksgiving could still stand out, as Chicago-based United Airlines expects its busiest Thanksgiving ever, and AAA is predicting more Illinois residents will be hitting roads, planes and trains.
The Transportation Security Administration is expecting the holiday season to be its busiest ever at the nation’s airports, and the Sunday after Thanksgiving to be the busiest of the long weekend at the nation’s airports. Already, seven of the 10 busiest days in TSA’s 22-year history have been in 2023, including the busiest single day on record, which was Friday, June 30.
TSA said it would work to keep security wait times under 10 minutes in TSA PreCheck lanes and under 30 minutes in standard lanes during the holiday rush, but also advised passengers to arrive early, be prepared with proper identification and pack appropriately. Foods like gravy, cranberry sauce, wine, jam and preserves are considered liquids or gels, and must be packed in checked bags.
In Illinois, AAA is predicting 2.8 million residents will travel at least 50 miles during the holiday weekend. That would mark the second-highest number of Thanksgiving travelers on record, after 2005.
Most travelers — 2.5 million — are expected to reach their destination by car, with Wednesday being the busiest day on the roads. Among the highest levels of congestion in the Chicago area could be around 4 p.m. Wednesday on I-94 heading from Chicago to Milwaukee, according to data from transportation firm INRIX provided by AAA.
Though fewer residents are expected to fly than drive, air travel among Illinois residents is expected to shatter previous records, with 290,000 residents flying for the holiday, according to AAA figures. If their predictions come true, it would mark a roughly 8% increase in air travelers over 2022, which had been the all-time high.
In Chicago, the two airports are expecting more than 1.65 million passengers between Tuesday and Monday, Nov. 27, the Chicago Department of Aviation said. The Sunday after Thanksgiving will also likely be the busiest day in Chicago during the long weekend.
Travel at O’Hare International Airport is expected to be up 1.5% over last year, and the number of passengers traveling through Midway is expected to be almost 1% higher than in 2022, the CDA said.
The uptick in holiday passengers comes after the Tribune found traffic at O’Hare lagged pre-pandemic levels, even as nationwide air traffic surged this summer. Passenger levels at Midway Airport, much smaller and dominated by Southwest Airlines, were already above 2019 levels.
This Thanksgiving, travelers heading to or from O’Hare could especially face challenges. Ongoing construction on the inbound, or southbound, Kennedy Expressway, the first stage of a three-year rehab of the highway, has for months caused congestion for those heading toward downtown. And construction on a new parking garage at O’Hare’s Terminal 5 will limit parking there, CDA said.
CDA urged travelers to use cell phone lots, kiss-n-ride drop-offs or public transit to avoid traffic backups, or to book parking ahead of time in case economy lots reach capacity.