The Best Day to Travel for Thanksgiving Is Thanksgiving Day Itself

(Unless you want to leave on Wednesday at 3 AM.)
The Best Day to Travel for Thanksgiving Is Thanksgiving Day Itself
You, soon, unless you read this article. Photograph via iStock.

People planning on driving somewhere for Thanksgiving next week should forget about leaving Tuesday or Wednesday and instead hit the road on the most optimal day: Thanksgiving itself. That’s the takeaway from Google’s annual study of holiday traffic patterns. The web giant’s Maps and News Labs division combed through all the data the company collects when nobody’s paying attention, and charted out when, exactly, one should head out for the holiday.

Traffic in Washington, which is no gem during an ordinary week, will be more testing than usual all next week. About 1.2 million DC-area drivers traveled at least 50 miles for Thanksgiving in 2016, per an estimate by AAA Mid-Atlantic. According to Google, the optimal window to leave is 3 AM on Wednesday, when the highways are presumably clear and most people are sleeping or, at the very least, packing frantically.

But driving in the middle of the night sucks. And forget about easy trips during waking hours on Wednesday, especially when holiday traffic climaxes about 3 PM. Tuesday and Monday are a bit better, but not everyone has the entire week off from work.

Traffic volume will spike Wednesday morning and stay up all day. Screenshot via Google.

The best time to actually drive to one’s Thanksgiving destination, then, is Thanksgiving Day itself. Is it an unorthodox move? Yes. Does it run the risk of alienating the far-flung relatives who assumed you’d be in by Wednesday night? Probably. But at least you’ll arrive in a much better mood than if you’d slogged it out with the masses.

 

Driving Thanksgiving Day itself shouldn’t be a hassle. Screenshot via Google.

Compared to Wednesday, Washington-area traffic patterns on Thanksgiving Day tend to be mild all morning before they top out midday. (This upcoming Thanksgiving may be a bit more of a hassle for Maryland-bound travelers, who may encounter NFL fans en route to an evening game at FedEx Field.) But it’s smooth sailing compared to the rest of the week. For travelers who’d rather not start driving before dawn, Google suggests leaving at 6 AM on Thursday.

A chart comparing Thanksgiving-week traffic in the country’s 25 largest metropolitan areas reveals that Washington’s holiday traffic is similar to everywhere else’s, but there are some hints in there. For one, Black Friday shoppers make the otherwise leisurely day after Thanksgiving as bad as a normal Friday-morning commute. And DC is one of the handful of metro areas that experience a slight blip in Thanksgiving-day traffic after the conclusion of the Macy’s parade broadcast. But if you leave at 6 AM, there’s a good chance you’ll reach your destination before then, or at least in time for the first seasonally appropriate playing of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

At least we’re not Cleveland! Chart via Google.

Still, not all the Thanksgiving travel information has to disrupt what you probably thought was a very well-planned itinerary. Washington’s standing among metro-areas-turned-holiday-traffic-nightmares has improved in recent years. Back in 2015, the DC region was the second-worst in the country for Thanksgiving-week driving, behind only Los Angeles. But this year, according to Google, Washington will only have the sixth-worst Wednesday traffic spike, while Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Raleigh, North Carolina suffer worse.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.