As we elbow our way into the heart of the winter holiday travel season here in the Northern Hemisphere, it seems like a good time to take stock of some of the conventional wisdom about holiday travel — we would even call them myths — that always seem to flood the mainstream media at this time of year.
According to expert estimates, 30 million Americans will travel during the holidays — and that seems like an undercount if you ask me. When that many of us are potentially mingling on the world’s roads and at its airports, it would be helpful if we were all on the same page with the same reliable information. To that end, we’ve rounded up a heap of holiday travel myths to debunk, in the hopes of making an already stressful time less confounding and confusing.
1. Everything about travel costs more during the holidays.
While holiday flight prices rise due both to speculative pricing as well as simple supply and demand, this is not necessarily true across the entire spectrum of travel services.
For example, hotel pricing can be unexpectedly affordable during the holidays, as studies show that around 50 percent of holiday travelers stay with family. Add to this the fact that business travel is almost non-existent this time of year, and many hotels have to work hard to fill rooms. So while hotels at the most popular winter destinations can be scarce and expensive, there are also heaps of empty rooms on sale, and in the big picture lodging is very affordable. It helps to wait until the holidays are imminent to book; Hipmunk data indicates that hotel rates dropped $60/night for folks who booked their stays in December.
Europe can be a true bargain, as Europeans tend not to travel as widely as do Americans during the holidays, according to Gabe Saglie of Travelzoo. The same is often true of rental car outfits, especially during Thanksgiving, when the large majority (91 percent) of travelers takes trips in their own cars.
2. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest air travel day of the year.
This myth is especially long in the tooth, and probably has roots in historical fact dating back to the days before air travel was a routine part of the lives of many Americans. It does make sense; it is one of the few holidays each year that everyone in the country celebrates, that a large majority of people have off from work and that is closely associated with traveling to be with extended family.
Presently, however, it is not close to fact. At best, Thanksgiving Eve might make the top 20 travel days even in a good year. According to airline experts, at least a dozen days during the summer routinely exceed the numbers moving around on Thanksgiving Eve. In 2006 and 2007, record years for passengers carried, Thanksgiving Eve ranked 36th and 55th overall, respectively. At Chicago’s busy O’Hare Airport, Thanksgiving Eve ranked 169th overall for the number of flights in 2013, according to the Chicago Tribune.
And last year, Thanksgiving Eve came in 27th overall in the U.S.; as it goes, there are only two days in the top 20 and only three in the top 30 that anyone would consider “winter” travel days according to The Top 30 Busiest Days at U.S. Airports in 2013.
While the sheer number of flights may not be that high, there are often more delays during this time of year. About 31 percent of flights are delayed during the Christmas travel season, compared to 18 percent at Thanksgiving, with the main culprit being not passenger load but weather. Add the fact that the folks traveling over the holidays tend not to be road warriors, and you can have a perfect storm of factors — high(ish) loads, weather problems and less experienced travelers who don’t have a battery of strategies for dealing with problems — that lead to a lot of folks stranded in airports.
3. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest car travel day, at least.
It is a busy day, but again this is not entirely true, or at least not anymore. Possibly due in part to years of media alarmism, the Thanksgiving Eve car commute is not really all that bad. This is due to the fact that fully 50% of the folks driving home for the holiday wait until Thursday morning to hit the road.
A note on the other winter holidays: While the Christmas and New Year’s travel period involves a lot more people all told — 140 million to Thanksgiving’s 62 million — it is spread over a much longer period of time, and as a result the specific daily loads tend not to be extraordinary.
4. New Year’s Eve is the absolute worst day to drive.
This one makes a lot of sense as well — lots of folks driving to and from New Year’s parties in winter conditions with various levels of impairment — but is not really the case. Various public efforts and campaigns to reduce impaired driving on this holiday have been pretty successful, and folks are just wising up, whether due to exerting some common sense or merely the fear of getting pulled over.
In fact, the several days right before Christmas can be more dangerous — from 1986 to 2002, December 23 was more dangerous than Jan 1. With holiday parties and travel home combining with folks cramming roads making last-minute gift purchases, you can sometimes encounter harrowing road conditions. Anyone who has ventured to a mall after December 20 or so knows exactly what we’re talking about.
In 2012, January 1 ranked 18th for accidents — although it appears to be a very dangerous day for pedestrians (the worst day of the year, just ahead of Halloween and then December 23 again). Might want to skip both the roads and the sidewalks that night.
5. All warm destinations will be overrun with vacationers.
This is the case for some but not all warm-weather destinations. There are a few factors that can make one location a lot more or less crowded than others.
First is proximity to a major airport. This is somewhat obvious, but not everyone considers it — let’s look at Florida as an obvious example, as many people consider this a major hot spot for winter tourism. The ranking of Florida airports by size goes roughly as follows: Miami, Orlando, Daytona Beach, Orlando Sanford, Fort Lauderdale. Florida is a big state, and the 233 miles between the Orlando airport and the Miami airport (or even the 215 miles between Orlando and Fort Lauderdale) are as a result relatively much quieter than the areas closest to the airports.
Add to that another major consideration — Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Port Canaveral (due east of Orlando) are the top three cruise ports in the world (!) — and it becomes easy to figure out that not all Florida beach destinations will be equally overrun with folks during the holidays. The beaches and towns away from these major ports can actually be quite sleepy during the holidays. This doesn’t even take into consideration that the west coast of Florida is ramping up tourism infrastructure rapidly, but remains still relatively undiscovered.
6. New Year’s Eve is an adult holiday; no families need apply.
Many, many popular family attractions are absolutely overrun on New Year’s Eve. Several years back we had to make a New Year’s trip to southern California as a family, unfortunately for reasons that made it anything but a vacation. Our 6-year-old boy had endured a few unpleasant days, so on New Year’s Eve, we decided to blast up to Disneyland for the day to give him a break.
The place was truly mobbed, so much so that the next morning I got on the Web to research Disneyland’s attendance stats, and learned that New Year’s Eve is the park’s busiest day of the year, bar none. And that is saying something.
So if you think New Year’s is amateur night for partiers, it is about the same for family vacationers.
7. Airports are way busier, with way more delays.
Although lately every trip to the airport feels like it was busier than the last one, this isn’t entirely the case. In fact, the number of people simply opting out of the whole flying experience during the peak winter season is on the rise. According to a survey by TripAdvisor, a significant percentage (4 – 5 percent) of folks who chose to fly over the 2012 holiday had opted not to fly (and to drive instead) over the 2013 holiday. Those same survey respondents declared the December holidays the most stressful, and they were reacting by avoiding airports.
Additionally, November had the least weather delays by month on average in 2013. The numbers spike up aggressively in late December, but even then more or less tie with the month of June, according to Quartz.
8. Booze warms you up.
Just in case you still fall for this one, it isn’t true — but cheers (responsibly) anyway!
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.