Holiday Travel

2021 Thanksgiving Travel Guide

By
Scott Keyes
|
Founder & Chief Flight Expert
Amsterdam canal houses in fall
October 18, 2021
|
3 min read

As summer fades into fall, it’s high-time to start booking your holiday trips—if you haven’t already. Flying over the holidays can be pricey, but with a little bit of planning and some flexibility, it is possible to find cheap Thanksgiving flights. Even if you didn't act by the end of September, all isn't not lost—especially in 2021 when we're seeing a lot more last-minute deals than usual.

Here's everything you need to know about Thanksgiving travel in 2021.

When is Thanksgiving in 2021?

Thanksgiving this year is Thursday, November 25, 2021.

Is it safe to travel for Thanksgiving in 2021? 

When you’re in an airplane at 30,000 feet, many people assume there’s no fresh air. But that's not true. Airplanes aren’t hermetically sealed environments. During a flight, fresh air from outside the plane is being continuously circulated into the cabin through complex vents in the engines.

In addition to bringing in fresh air from the outside, planes have hospital-grade air filters to purify the air onboard. These High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters cycle the air every few minutes, capturing 99.97% of airborne particles. Because of these onboard filters, researchers have found that airplane air is as clean or cleaner than the air in offices, schools, and other indoor settings.

Though fresh air and filters help, you’ll still be sharing an indoor space with quite a few people for an extended period of time. If a sick person sitting next to you coughs, fresh air and HEPA filters aren’t great armor. Planes, like most places, will never be 100% safe but they also aren't super-spreaders. All that to say: planes aren't inherently more dangerous places, and you're not more likely to get Covid from flying.

The greatest risk is from gathering unmasked and indoors with unvaccinated people. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that those who are vaccinated, and who will be spending time with other vaccinated people, should feel comfortable spending the holidays with family.

Read our guide to travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

How Thanksgiving travel will be different in 2021

Procrastinators are in a better spot than usual

In normal years, the best time to search for cheap flights—what we call the Goldilocks Window—is 2-6 months in advance for international travel and 1-3 months in advance for domestic. During peak times like Thanksgiving (along with summer, Spring Break, Christmas, New Year’s, or when your dates are not flexible) you’ll want to book even further out, if possible. 

The odds of snagging a cheap flight decrease the closer it gets to Thanksgiving, especially if your dates and destination are not flexible. By early September, the window for cheap Thanksgiving flights (and even- Christmas and New Year’s) is closing fast. And once you get to about three weeks out from Thanksgiving, you can expect prices to soar. 

At least, that's how things usually go...

Things are different this year. In general, we are seeing many more last-minute-ish fares than we have in years past.

This can largely be attributed to the fact that demand has lagged supply on many routes. Airlines increased capacity very quickly, particularly on a lot of leisure-focused routes, and though travel demand has bounced back, it’s still below pre-pandemic levels.

That’s leaving a lot of empty seats on planes, and airlines are competing hard to fill them out. While we continue to advise folks to stay aware of the Goldilocks Window mentioned above, even if you procrastinated, you might get a mulligan this year (but don't expect this to be the case in 2022).

International destinations provide some of the best value for Thanksgiving travel deals

In most years, Thanksgiving is a bit of an anomaly among the holidays when it comes to international deals. If you’re looking to travel domestically, with millions of your fellow Americans visiting family at the exact same time, it can be expensive and a holiday-booking strategy should apply (e.g. start watching prices as early as possible).

However, for international flights, it can actually be one of the best times of year to find a cheap flight. The millions of travelers flying domestically are, by definition, not traveling internationally. For airlines, it’s a feast-time domestically and a famine-time internationally. What do airlines do to fill all those planes flying to Paris and Cancún and Barcelona? Simple: slash the fare.

International flights get significantly pricier in mid-December for the Christmas/New Year’s period. But in late November, airlines still have to entice travelers overseas. Timing-wise, Thanksgiving is an especially convenient week to travel. Most kids get a five-day weekend from school, if not the entire week off. Many workplaces do the same.

It’s also good timing at your destination, especially if you’re traveling across the Atlantic. Europe is one of the best places to fly for Thanksgiving. Late November is when many European Christmas markets begin popping up. Plus the weather is still plenty manageable in autumn. One final benefit: late November is off peak for most international destinations. It’s not just flights that are cheaper; it’s hotels, car rentals, and activities as well.

All of this is especially true in 2021.

Airlines have a lot of seats to sell. International travel still isn't back to pre-pandemic levels. This means destinations are relatively crowd-free, prices are lower, and you have a great chance of snagging an international deal.

For example: 

  • November 24 to 30, 2021, you could fly from San Francisco to Detroit for $418 roundtrip with one stop, or you could fly to Mexico City for $369 roundtrip with no stops.
  • November 25 to December 1, 2021, you could fly from Houston to Boise with one stop for $295 roundtrip, or for just a bit more, $344 roundtrip, you could head to Costa Rica instead, and on a nonstop flight.
  • November 23 to 29, 2021, you could fly from NYC to Oklahoma City for $377 roundtrip with one stop, or for just $20 more on the flight, you could spend that time exploring London.

(All example prices found on October 18, 2021. Prices have likely changed since.) 

Cancellations, lines, and delays may be more common, especially on certain airlines

Throughout the travel and hospitality industries, from airlines and airports to car rental offices to hotels and restaurants, businesses are dealing with staffing shortages, so you can generally expect to encounter some delays and long lines throughout your travels. Some airlines have already started cutting back on flights through the fall and early winter based on lagging demand, which means you may see your scheduled flight change (and remember, if the airline significantly alters your schedule, you can get a full refund).

It's possible we may see some airlines cancelling a mass amount of flights, as happened with Southwest in early October when the airline cancelled more than a third of its scheduled flights in one weekend and left thousands of passengers scrambling to get home. Unfortunately, with airlines like Southwest that don't have interline agreements with other airlines, this means you're stuck waiting until they can re-accomodate you, or you'll need to buy a replacement flight out of pocket.

Flying on an airline that has these agreements, like United, American, or Delta, means that if they can't get your home on one of their flights, they can often fly you on one of their partner airlines. Additionally, these airlines tend to operate on a hub and spoke system, so even if they can't fly you direct they can likely get you home with a connection or two.

Booking with certain credit cards can give you more protection

Many credit cards, particularly those with travel perks, offer travel protections that can cover you in the event of trip interruption or cancellation. They'll cover things like replacement clothes if your luggage is lost or delayed, hotel rooms or car rentals if your flight is canceled or delayed, or even a replacement flight.

Hotels and car rentals have returned to normal price, or lower

Over the summer car rental prices soared as travel quickly rebounded and car rental agencies played catchup after selling off their fleets in 2020. Things got so bad that at one point, the cheapest possible car rental in Maui was $650 a day—over $4,000 for a week.

But with the summer travel season over and kids largely back in school, demand for rental cars has dropped significantly. Add on the fact that agencies have spent months replenishing their stock and you now see rental prices back to a pre-pandemic normal. Even Thanksgiving rates are cheap (Christmas and New Year’s are generally double or triple the price, but that happens every year.)

The news is even better with hotels. On average, hotel prices have largely rebounded from 2020 lows and are now on par with pre-pandemic rates. In some markets, prices are even lower than pre-2020 prices.

Among the current best value destinations (as measured by the largest drops in average daily rates compared to 2019):

  • San Francisco Bay Area, where prices have plummeted nearly 40%
  • Washington DC, where rates have fallen 22%
  • Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle which have all posted 10%+ drops

And the destination with the highest average daily rate increase? Miami, with an average daily rate of $172, nearly 20% higher than pre-pandemic.

While this year will be different, there are also some tips that are true no matter what. Here are some of our other tips for Thanksgiving travel that apply any year.

Read our guide to scoring great deals on car rentals.

Tips for finding cheap Thanksgiving flights

Always book before the 21-, 14-, and 7-day marks

If you absolutely have to buy a last-minute ticket for Thanksgiving, here's a way to avoid predictable price jumps.

Every time you purchase a flight, the ticket has fine print dictating, among other things, how it’s priced. These are known as “fare rules” and tickets are lumped in many different “fare buckets.” One of the most common fare rule items is an advance purchase requirement, which mandates that a particular fare bucket is only available if booked, say, 21 days or more in advance of travel.

Also common: 14-day and 7-day advance purchase requirements.

The reason airlines use advance purchase requirements is simple: leisure travelers tend to book flights early and business travelers tend to book flights late. Airlines want to make sure they milk as much money as possible from business travelers who don’t care what the flight costs (it’s their company paying, after all), so they increase fares on the type of tickets business travelers buy, including last-minute bookings.

This means a fare will typically go up 21 days, 14 days, and 7 days before departure (though of course, that's not that only time the price might change). If you're watching a fare and it's been relatively stable, set an alarm for these benchmarks and try to book before them—odds are the price will rise on these days.

Be flexible with dates

If you’re trying to find flights to see family for Thanksgiving, you’ll be much more likely to snag a deal if you can pad your travel dates so that you aren’t flying out the day before Thanksgiving and back home the Sunday after—as these are two of the busiest travel days of the year. 

Instead, look at flying to your destination earlier in the week when most people are still at work, or flying back home later the following week. If you don’t have extra time off work, try to fly when most people don’t want to: for example, most people start their Thanksgiving celebrations by Thursday afternoon, so flights that arrive later on in the day are typically cheaper than those that arrive in the morning. 

If you’re not visiting family and are instead planning a much-needed international vacation, consider leaving Thanksgiving day, when fares are typically lower, and coming back mid-week the following week. 

Use the flexible dates search function on Google Flights to find the most affordable days and times to travel over your targeted date range. Sometimes changing your dates by just a day or two can make a huge difference in cost. 

Going on vacation? Be flexible with your destination, too 

Don’t care where you go? As always, we recommend using Google Flights to jump-start your search and find the cheapest dates and locations.

Google Flights’ Explore Map shows you the cheapest places to travel from your home base over the specified date range you’d like to travel. Regions outside of the United States, for example, won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving, so it’s a great time to squeeze in an affordable Europe vacation to a city like Paris, Amsterdam, or London that’s a lot more expensive in, say, summer or over Christmas.

Consider the time of day

Less desirable times, such as red-eyes or the first flight of the morning, tend to be cheaper.

Look at alternate airports

Expand your search to encompass airports within a short drive radius. For example, if you’re going to New York City, flying into Newark, or even Philadelphia, might yield cheaper flights than JFK or LaGuardia.

Try hidden city ticketing if the place you want to go is a hub

One way to hack airline prices is to look at other ticket options that might have you connecting in the hub you’re attempting to travel to. In other words, a flight from San Francisco to Nashville with a layover in Atlanta might be cheaper than a direct flight from San Francisco to Atlanta; if you’re looking to go to Atlanta as your final destination, you’d take the first leg and not the second. Just remember when you skip a leg on a hidden-city flight, the rest of your ticket will be canceled, so book two one-way tickets, or else skip the flight only on your return leg.

If you’re flying internationally, focus on getting across the ocean as cheaply as possible

This might mean booking a round-trip flight to a major hub like Paris or London and then another cheap roundtrip flight to your final destination via a low-cost regional carrier (or taking the train, bus, or ferry).

Where to go for Thanksgiving in 2021

Whether you want to stay closer to home or venture around the world, there are plenty of great places to go for Thanksgiving. Here are a just a few of our favorites.

Where to go in the US for Thanksgiving

Las Vegas: Vegas is a 24/7 city and that doesn't change on holidays. That means you don't have to worry about lots of places being closed. Some restaurants will offer special Thanksgiving Day dinners but at many others, it's business as usual. Plus, the weather is pleasant, without the scorching hot days you'll find in the summer months.

Napa Valley: Napa is a bit sleepier than Vegas on Thanksgiving itself, but over the rest of the week, restaurants, shops, and wineries will be open (mostly as usual, though some may have slightly reduced hours). There's plenty to do aside from wine tasting, too, like hot air ballon rides, horseback riding, and spa treatments. And the leaves on the wines erupt in beautiful shades of red and yellow. (Read more about Napa Valley.)

NYC: The big draw for Thanksgiving in NYC? The annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, of course. And if you stick around for a few days later, you can see the annual Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center on December 1. (Check out our guide to NYC.)

Where to go internationally for Thanksgiving

Germany: Many of Germany's famed Christmas markets start at the end of November and there's no better way to get into the holiday spirit. Yes, it can be cold, but a bit of hot mulled wine and some hearty German fare will warm you right up.

Argentina: November corresponds with the end of spring in Argentina, so the weather is mild throughout the country. Start in Buenos Aires for some tango and prime beef, then head to Mendoza, one of Argentina's wine regions for excellent Malbec and a view of the Andes mountains.

Namibia: Namibia is hot, but not humid, in November and since things tend to be very dry, it's a good time to spot animals. It's also one of the best times to see large groups of flamingos gather in Swakopmund.

Thanksgiving Day travel pro tips

Fly early in the morning or late in the evening. Most people will want to arrive in their destination in the late morning or early afternoon, so the least crowded (and likely cheapest) flights will be the undesirable super early morning flights and the flights that leave later in the evening. Plus, delays and cancellations often have a chain effect, so flying first thing in the morning reduces your risk of departing late.

Arrive extra early. Prepare for longer-than-usual lines by arriving to the airport earlier than you might otherwise. And if you have a connection, make sure you give yourself plenty of time. If you're traveling internationally, remember to allow extra time for officials to check necessary paperwork like vaccination records or test results. And if you're flying basic economy and don't yet have an assigned seat, arriving early gives you a better chance of being able to ask to move to a more desirable seat.

Don't forget extra masks and sanitizer. Masks are required in airports and on planes, so bring an extra or two in case you lose one or it gets soiled. And remember, you can now bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer, unlike other liquids that are limited to 3 ounces or less for carryons.

Pack light and go carry-on only. Everything takes a bit longer during peak travel periods, so avoid a lengthy wait at baggage claim by packing only a carryon. If you can, now is also the time to pay for services like priority boarding. With full planes, overhead space will run out, so boarding earlier ensures you don't get stuck having to check your bag.

Yes, you can bring your Thanksgiving dish on board. You just can't bring liquids or jellies (so no soup, gravy, or cranberry sauce, but pumpkin pie is okay). You can download the free MyTSA app to double check exactly what you can and can't bring.

Use an overbooked flight to your advantage. If your flight is overbooked and you can volunteer to take a later flight, you could walk away with lots of cash. Typically the agents will start with a low offer but will increase it as they get more desperate. Specify that your compensation needs to match the highest amount offered. You can even negotiate for perks like a business class seat on the later flight.

The best time to travel for Thanksgiving

The best times to travel for Thanksgiving in 2021 are Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and early Thursday morning or late Thursday night.

The worst time to fly to your destination is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

2021 Thanksgiving and holiday travel forecast

2021 SCF holiday travel forecast
2021 Thanksgiving travel trends

More 2021 Thanksgiving travel stats

  • While prices are still down from 2019, they are up a bit from their 2020 record lows. Average airfares right now are 23% down from this time in 2019. At this point last year they were 35% down.
  • It's expected that around 1.9 million people will take to the skies over Thanksgiving, which is double 2020's numbers, but only 75% of the number of travelers in 2019, according to Hopper.
  • The most searched destinations on Scott's Cheap Flights currently are: London, Paris, Las Vegas, Rome, NYC, Los Angeles, Cancun, and Orlando.

Our favorite tools for finding cheap Thanksgiving flights

  • Google Flights: Google Flights makes it easy to see the cheapest days to fly and to compare prices across several airports. It's fast and reliable, but note that Southwest prices aren't included so if you're flying within the US or in the Caribbean, it's worth comparing prices on Southwest separately.
  • Momondo: Momondo searches additional OTAs that Google Flights doesn't, so it can sometimes offer cheaper fares. Booking with an OTA can make things complicated when things go wrong, but sometimes the discount is worth the risk.
  • Kayak: Kayak is another great search site that sometimes finds cheaper fares then Google Flights.

Some great Thanksgiving travel deals we've found recently: 

Join Scott's Cheap Flights and get amazing flight deals sent right to your inbox. Members save an average of $550 per ticket.

Last Updated 
October 18, 2021
2021 Thanksgiving Travel Guide
Scott Keyes
Founder & Chief Flight Expert

Scott has traveled to 46 countries (and 46 states!), living in California, to Oaxaca, to Oregon. He’s left-handed, drinks five cups of tea daily, and holds a vendetta against the “Happy Birthday” song. On a dare, he once ate 13 hot dogs (and a bowl of Dippin’ Dots) at the ballpark. He grew up in Ohio and founded Scott’s Cheap Flights in a Denver coffee shop. Favorite airport: PDX.

Get alerts about cheap flights up to 90% off normal prices
Find out when airlines accidentally publish the wrong prices
Save hundreds on summer, peak season and holiday flights
Sign Up
Right arrow