8 tips for Thanksgiving travel: Airports will be packed; Masks aren't optional

A week before Thanksgiving last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans not to travel over the holiday as COVID-19 cases were ticking up.

Millions of travelers ignored the advice, swarming airports across the country and setting what was then a pandemic record for air travel.

A year later, there is no broad CDC Thanksgiving travel warning, 80% of Americans age 12 and older have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and school-age children are now eligible for a jab.

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Add in relaxed travel restrictions to and from many destinations, especially for vaccinated visitors, and you have the recipe for a Thanksgiving travel surge that is likely to set pandemic passenger records.

The Transportation Security Administration on Wednesday said it expects to screen an estimated 20 million people, or 2 million per day, at U.S. airports over the 10-day Thanksgiving travel period that began Friday and ends the Sunday after Thanksgiving. That is down from a record 23 million in 2019, but double 2020 levels.

Early TSA numbers bear that out: Nearly 6.5 million people were screened over the weekend, with Friday travel setting a pandemic record of 2,242,956. That beat the previous record of 2,238,462 set on Aug. 1.

Delta Air Lines said it expects to carry nearly triple the number of Thanksgiving passengers as it did in 2020, with passenger traffic the Sunday after Thanksgiving likely to top a pandemic record set in July.

Travelers who haven't been on a plane during the pandemic will be rusty. Here's what travelers need to know:

1. Do get COVID-19 travel documents in order before you get to the airport

Travelers don't need to show vaccine proof or a negative coronavirus test to board a flight within the United States, though Hawaii requires one of the two to bypass a mandatory quarantine upon arrival. Several international destinations have entry requirements, and all travelers flying into the U.S. from another country, including returning U.S. citizens, must show a negative coronavirus test to board the flight. Foreign nationals must test and show proof of vaccination under new rules that took effect Nov. 8.

Need to show vaccination proof? How to safely store it on your phone

2. Don't cut it close getting to the airport

This isn't the year to show up an hour before your flight, even if you have a fast pass through security like TSA PreCheck. Airlines, the TSA, wheelchair providers and airport shops and restaurants have struggled to add staff to match the rapid return in travel this year, so waits are generally longer and bigger crowds mean even longer lines. Airlines recommend arriving at least two hours before departure for domestic flights and three hours for international flights. Add in more time if you are traveling at peak times or plan to grab coffee or food for your flight.

3. Do reserve a ride to the airport or airport parking in advance so you're not scrambling the day of the flight

Travelers have struggled to get timely, affordable Uber and Lyft rides this year due to a shortage of drivers, and a spike in holiday travelers won't help the situation. Schedule a ride or shuttle where available, take public transportation, or enlist someone to drop you off.

If you opt for ride-hailing services: Uber can have your airport ride ready once you land. Here's how it'll work.

4. Don't forget face masks

Masks are still required from the second you step into an airport until you land and claim your bags, and flight attendants regularly remind travelers to only remove them briefly while eating or drinking. The federal face mask mandate covers airport facilities like shuttles and rental car centers too. Bring extras, especially for longer flights, and hand sanitizer too. Some airlines still hand out wipes, but on most carriers, you have to bring your own.

5. Do brush up on TSA rules

Cranberry sauce, gravy and wine are considered liquids and thus prohibited in carry-on bags; pies and other baked goods are solids and OK to bring on the plane. Have questions about specific items? Reach out to TSA on Twitter or Facebook messenger or call the agency's contact center at 866-289-9673.

Need extra assistance at the airport? How TSA Cares helps people who need extra support at security.

6. Don't count on the usual food and drinks on the plane

Airlines cut back on complimentary snacks and drinks and items for sale early in the pandemic to reduce interactions between flight attendants and passengers, and many have been slow to resume service. 

Southwest Airlines used to offer a variety of free snacks on longer flights, but today only hands out a small bag of snack mix on most flights. The airline recently expanded its drink menu beyond three soft drinks and water; it still doesn't serve alcohol. American Airlines has also not resumed alcohol sales in economy. United resumed sales of hard liquor this week.

7. Do bring your own food but forget about BYOB

With in-flight food limited and airport lines long and some concessions still closed, the best option for hungry travelers is to bring food from home. Sneaking those miniature bottles of booze or an alcoholic beverage from the airport onto the plane is not allowed, however. FAA regulations prohibit passengers from drinking alcohol on board the aircraft unless it is served by the airline.

Airlines plea to pandemic passengers: No BYOB

8. Don't forget to draft a plan B in case of flight cancellations and delays

Southwest, Spirit and American airlines have stranded passengers this year during major meltdowns tied to staffing shortages, and wintry weather is always a wildcard during the holiday travel rush. Get to know your airline's Twitter handle for quick rebooking help in case of cancellations and delays, and know your rights – airlines are required to refund your money not just issue travel credit when they cancel the flight. Jot down alternative flights to or near your destination and even airport hotels, so you're not researching on the fly.

Airline cancel or delay your flight? Here's what airlines owe you (and how to get it)