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Thanksgiving travel is expected to be near pre-pandemic levels

Building with arches and a clock tower
Main Street Station in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom. Expanded rail service at the station gives Virginians even more options for their holiday travel this year. (Photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

The anxiousness to get together after last year’s isolating Thanksgiving is putting more people on the road this year. 

AAA predicts traffic levels in Virginia are nearly at pre-pandemic numbers with 1.4 million travelers expected on the road later this week. That’s an 11% increase from last year, but it’s still down 6% from 2019. 

“We also have a lot of people with pent up demand to get out and get back closer to normal,” said Morgan Dean, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid Atlantic. “For families that may not have gotten together with loved ones last year, or close friends last year, we really hear from them. They're telling us that they want to get back to doing those things.” 

In a survey done by AAA, only 9% of Virginians feel that traveling over Thanksgiving poses a significant risk of COVID this year. That’s compared to last year’s 33%.  

The busiest roads in the state are predicted to be I-95 and the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia. For people who want to avoid traffic, avoid traveling on Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, and Sunday, when many people travel home following the holiday.

“For folks traveling on Wednesday, a lot of people want to get out of work, grab the kids from school and hit the road in the middle of the afternoon,” Dean said. “That might actually put you right in the middle of traffic because everybody's trying to do that.”

Families who leave after 9 at night on Wednesday and in the morning on Sunday might find less traffic. 

Through this summer, airlines struggled to adapt COVID protocols to increased demand, resulting in delayed and cancelled flights, layoffs and more. 

“Travelers need to be very patient,” Dean said. “We've seen some staffing issues and other things throughout the year. That could lead to some flight cancellations. We hope not over the holidays, but there's always that chance, especially when you start to mix winter weather in with that.”

Travelers should be looking at their flight status leading up to their departure day. AAA also recommends  looking into flight insurance and what it covers. Ultimately, passengers should be flexible and have back-up plans.

If going through an airport, train or bus station, follow mask protocols and practice social distancing, staying six feet away from others.

“People need to remember as they're traveling for the holidays, we still are dealing with COVID they need to do everything they can to protect themselves from it.” Dean said “If they're driving, the nice thing about driving is you control the environment that you're in. Last year, we learned the value of our vehicles because we could control who got in, who got out, cleanliness, things like that. When you stop along the road, though, you run into some more of the risks.” 

Travelers should also ensure their safety by knowing the weather, making sure their car is properly operating and mentally preparing for the drive.  

“Drivers may not have been putting as many miles on their car. They may not have been spending as much time behind the wheel as they have in past years, '' Dean said. “So this is kind of a chance to just pause and think about it. ‘Is everything ready with the car?’ ‘Am I mentally ready to get onto the road and do all of this?’ Plan to run into backups and slowdowns, then your expectations are a little bit better.”