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Thanksgiving travel: Record traffic expected, but Florida may luck out

Airline and road traffic will both be up in Tampa Bay. But at least gas prices are down.
 
Travelers wait in a security line at Denver International Airport on Tuesday. Transportation Security Administration officials expect to screen a record 2.9 million travelers on Sunday, the busiest day of the long Thanksgiving weekend.
Travelers wait in a security line at Denver International Airport on Tuesday. Transportation Security Administration officials expect to screen a record 2.9 million travelers on Sunday, the busiest day of the long Thanksgiving weekend. [ THOMAS PEIPERT | AP ]
Published Nov. 22, 2023|Updated Nov. 22, 2023

This weekend will bring one of the busiest Thanksgiving travel days on record. Yet for travelers dreading the interstate Thursday morning or a flight home on Sunday, there may be hope for a happy holiday after all.

A record 2.9 million travelers, including an all-time high at Tampa International Airport, are expected to pass through federal airport screening on Sunday, the peak travel day of the long weekend. And on the roads, about 55.4 million drivers — including 1 in 8 Floridians — will take road trips between Wednesday and Sunday, according to AAA. That’s the third most since the auto group began tracking holiday travel in 2000.

Tamilah Belton rests on her luggage while waiting at the ticket counter before her flight from Nashville International Airporton Tuesday in Tennessee. Millions of people are expected to hit airports and highways in record numbers over the Thanksgiving Day break.
Tamilah Belton rests on her luggage while waiting at the ticket counter before her flight from Nashville International Airporton Tuesday in Tennessee. Millions of people are expected to hit airports and highways in record numbers over the Thanksgiving Day break. [ GEORGE WALKER IV | AP ]

By Wednesday evening, though, air traffic in Tampa Bay was still running relatively smoothly. Neither Tampa International nor St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport was reporting more or lengthier delays than usual, according to the flight tracking site FlightAware.com.

Meanwhile, more than half of Florida’s gas stations are offering fuel below $3 per gallon this week, according to AAA. The Tampa Bay area’s average price of just under $3 per gallon on Wednesday was down more than 44 cents from the previous year.

“While there could be some fluctuations in the coming weeks, AAA expects gas prices to remain low through the holidays, unless oil prices suddenly spike,” agency spokesperson Mark Jenkins said in a statement.

Of course, the long weekend is only beginning.

Air travelers fill Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Friday as the busy holiday period kicks off.
Air travelers fill Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Friday as the busy holiday period kicks off. [ JOHN SPINK / JOHN.SPINK | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ]

Tampa International expects its 11-day Thanksgiving travel period, stretching from Nov. 16 through Sunday, to be its busiest on record, with an average of 80,000 passengers arriving and departing every day. Wednesday and Sunday were expected to be the busiest days, with between 84,000 and 87,000 passengers passing through.

At St. Petersburg-Clearwater, 36,027 passengers on 239 flights are expected to fly in and out between last Sunday and this Sunday. Both numbers are up from last year.

Both airports have urged early planning in arriving for a flight.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater International’s long-term parking lot has been closed due to construction, and the airport encouraged travelers to hitch a ride or park in an economy lot. In Tampa, travelers arriving or departing via Uber, Lyft or other ride-sharing services will be directed toward designated express curbside arrival areas, rather than baggage claim areas.

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“We could have moments at peak times where we could potentially reach capacity in our garages,” Tampa International Airport spokesperson Emily Nipps said. “If you have a reservation, you will be able to park. If you don’t have a reservation, and you show up and the garage is full, then you may need to park elsewhere.”

Every day this weekend, the worst travel periods will generally occur midday. To avoid the worst congestion, AAA recommends hitting the road before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m. Thursday, before 11 a.m. or after 7 p.m. Friday, and before noon on Saturday and Sunday. But peak times can vary by route. According to AAA, the worst time to drive from Tampa to Orlando via Interstate 4 will likely be 8:15 a.m. Thursday, when the trip could take 36% longer than normal.

Weather, as always, could be a factor. The Tampa Bay area is forecast to get a few showers over the weekend, particularly on Friday and Saturday. But storms out of the Midwest could bring several inches of snow toward New England, potentially impacting flights to and from the northeast.

If you’re flying, Tampa International Airport recommends arriving two hours before your departure time for domestic trips, and three hours for international trips.

“The earlier the better,” Nipps said. “You may get lucky and have a normal experience when you come here.”