104 million holiday travelers expected; best times to avoid them

Updated Dec 12, 2023
Heavy traffic jam

A near-record number of motorists on the nation's highways during the upcoming holidays could increase travel times by as much as 20%, according to one traffic expert. However, analysts also outline the best and worst times to travel during the holiday travel period. 

The number of Americans hitting the highways to celebrate Christmas and the New Year is expected to increase over last year. AAA said it expects nearly 104 million people will drive to their holiday destinations, an increase of 1.8% compared to 2022. This year’s projected number of drivers is the second highest on record after 2019 when 108 million drivers hit the road for the holidays. 

In all, AAA projects 115.2 million travelers will head 50 miles or more from home over the 10-day year-end holiday travel period. This year’s total number of domestic travelers is a 2.2% increase over last year and the second highest year-end travel forecast since 2000, when AAA began tracking holiday travel. 2019 remains the busiest Christmas and New Year’s travel period on record with 119 million travelers. 

“This year-end holiday forecast, with an additional 2.5 million travelers compared to last year, mirrors what AAA Travel has been observing throughout 2023,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. “More Americans are investing in travel, despite the cost, to make memories with loved ones and experience new places.” 

NRIX, a provider of transportation data and insights, says there will be several days of potentially bad traffic during the 10-day holiday period. Saturday, Dec. 23, and Thursday, Dec. 28, will be the most congested days on the road. INRIX also says Saturday, Dec. 30, when many people will be heading back home from their holiday destinations or traveling for New Year’s Eve, will see an increase in traffic compared to a normal Saturday. The best times to hit the road are before lunchtime or after 7 p.m. 

Worst Travel Time Best Travel Time 

  • Saturday, Dec 23: Worst, 11 a.m. -7 p.m. Best, Before 10:00 AM 
  • Sunday, Dec 24: Minimal Traffic Impact Expected 
  • Monday, Dec 25 Minimal Traffic Impact Expected 
  • Tuesday, Dec 26: Worst 1 p.m.– 5 p.m.Best, Before noon
  • Wednesday, Dec 27: Worst, 1 p.m. - 7 p.m. Best, Before noon
  • Thursday, Dec 28: Worst 2 p.m. - 8 p.m. Best, Before noon 
  • Friday, Dec 29: Worst 2 p.m. - 8 p.m. Best, Before noon
  • Saturday, Dec 30 Worst 5 p.m. - 7 p.m. Best, Before noon 
  • Sunday, Dec 31: Minimal Traffic Impact Expected 
  • Monday, Jan 1: Minimal Traffic Impact Expected 

“Nationwide, drivers could see travel times up to 20% longer this holiday season. In major metros, especially in Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC, drivers could experience nearly double the typical delays,” said Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX. “Avoid peak commuting hours and use traffic apps, local DOT notifications, and 511 services to minimize holiday travel traffic frustrations.”