Thanksgiving is the first holiday on the menu that will entice people to hit the road or take to the sky en masse to visit family or friends. More than 53 million people are predicted to travel for Thanksgiving this year, which is up 13% from last year, according to AAA, and near what was seen at the last Thanksgiving before the coronavirus pandemic in 2019.
Mother Nature will serve up a cornucopia of weather elements across the United States on the day before Thanksgiving including chilly winds, a bit of snow, rain showers and a few thunderstorms, but dry and tranquil weather is on the menu for large swathes of the country.
"Now that the borders are open and new health and safety guidelines are in place, travel is once again high on the list for Americans who are ready to reunite with their loved ones for the holiday," said Paula Twidale, the senior vice president of AAA Travel.
Air travel is expected to spike 80% this year compared to last year, AAA analysts said. This means that any disruptive weather on the days leading up to Thanksgiving could lead to big delays and, in some cases, have an accordion effect across the country. But even with the dramatic increase in air travel this year over last, the vast majority of Americans traveling this Thanksgiving — more than 48 million — are expected to do so by car.
AccuWeather meteorologists are predicting that the worst weather on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which is usually the busiest travel day of the entire year, will unfold across the Northeast. Several cities will face disruptive weather that could add stress for millions taking to the skies and highways. Weather conditions could impact major travel hubs and long stretches of interstates 80, 81, 90 and 95, and delays in those places will be spurred by a large, slow-moving storm that will hit the region during the first half of the week.
A passenger at right looks up at a baggage claim monitors at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011, in Atlanta. Travel levels are expected to return this year to near what was seen prior to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Paul Pastelok said that winds across the region could gust up to 40 mph from Baltimore through Boston. "Tree branches could blow across some highway sections and side roads, and high-profile vehicles may have some troubles," he said.
Wind will be the primary concern on Wednesday, but some motorists who plan to travel through northeastern New York and interior areas of New England and perhaps the mountains in West Virginia could face a white-knuckled drive with lingering snow in the region. Lake-effect snow could affect areas downwind of the Great Lakes and as far south as the central Appalachians. Travelers in parts of Maine may need to check for alternate routes as runoff from heavy rain early in the week may leave streams and rivers out of their banks through midweek.
Flight cancelations from earlier in the week during the worst of the storm could also compound issues at airports across the region, so folks planning to fly out of an airport in the Northeast should plan accordingly and allow for extra travel time due to the possibility of delays.
Some weather-related delays are also likely across the Upper Midwest, northern Plains and the northern Rockies on Wednesday. As cold air sets in, some snow is expected to fall across the region, forecasters say.
Rain and perhaps even some wet snowflakes could even make it to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, although Pastelok said that the precipitation should not last all day. A similar scenario is possible at Denver International Airport, although the chance of rain will not arrive until late Wednesday into Thursday.
Some rain and thunderstorms will be possible from New Orleans through St. Louis, but the precipitation will generally be light and lead to only minor travel issues.
The weather should be more cooperative at other major airports across the country, although flights arriving from the Northeast or across the northern tier could land a little behind schedule.
While most of the West Coast is anticipated to experience rain-free weather, breezy conditions could lead to some delays or turbulence for those flying in and out of Southern California or the Bay Area.
However, even in areas where calm conditions are expected, weather-related delays in some parts of the country on Wednesday — and even a day or two before — could have a ripple effect that disrupts flights elsewhere in the nation.
In late October, strong winds in Dallas triggered a snowball effect that contributed to more than 2,300 flight cancelations across the U.S. over a period of several days.
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Those who are planning a cross-country trip should also be sure to check the weather at their destination while packing.
While it may be warm and dry across the Southwest and southern Plains leading up to Thanksgiving, anyone flying from these areas to a spot in the Northeast will step off the plane to cold weather and snow flurries.
Weather conditions in the Northeast will improve by Thanksgiving Day, just in time for holiday festivities.
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City is returning to normal this year after the event was closed to the public in 2020 due to the pandemic, and those planning to be in attendance should dress for a chilly day.
"There is a 10% chance of a sprinkle or flurry for the parade," Pastelok said. "Right now, it looks like wind should be under the criteria for the balloons," he continued, referring to city guidelines that prohibit the balloons from being a part of the parade if sustained winds are above 23 mph or gusts reach 34 mph. "But gloves, a hat and a jacket will be needed." However, it is not out of the question that gusty winds on Wednesday could hamper or delay preparations for the balloons ahead of the parade.
The Snoopy and Woodstock balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Parades and other outdoor gatherings across the Southeast could face wet weather as disruptive rain and thunderstorms dampen the region. Some rain is also in the forecast for part of the Pacific Northwest with snow forecast to fall in the higher elevations.
While travelers focus on turkey dinners and spending time with family and friends, AccuWeather meteorologists are already looking past turkey day at how weather conditions might impact return trips home.
"There could be another storm to watch on Friday and Saturday," Pastelok said. "It will be something to watch for the end of the holiday week."
Early indications suggest that this new storm could gather across part of the southern U.S. around Friday and Saturday before potentially reaching the East Coast at the end of the extended holiday weekend. Anyone planning to travel through these regions of the country after Thanksgiving should check back with AccuWeather for updates on this new storm as the holiday approaches.
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