Misty Way and her 8-year-old son, Daniel, are making their annual holiday trip this week from their home in Austin, Texas, to relatives in Kingston, Tennessee.
To help break up the 1,150-mile drive, the Texas family stopped in Chattanooga to ride the Incline Railway on Sunday and go to Ruby Falls under Lookout Mountain on Monday.
"Chattanooga has always been on our bucket list of cities to visit, so we're spending a couple of days here to enjoy the local attractions," Way said Monday while visiting Ruby Falls. "It's a long drive, but it's also a lot of fun and always great to see our family."
The Ways are among an estimated 55.4 million Americans traveling away from home during the Thanksgiving holiday to be with family members and friends in other cities in what is shaping up as one of the busiest Thanksgiving holidays ever for travel, according to a survey done for AAA. Nearly 1.2 million Tennesseans are projected to hit the road this week and millions more, like the Ways, will be driving through the state.
"For many Americans, Thanksgiving and travel go hand in hand, and this holiday, we expect more people on the roads, skies and seas compared to 2022," Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in AAA's annual forecast. "Travel demand has been strong all year, and AAA's Thanksgiving forecast reflects that continued desire to get away and spend time with loved ones."
2023 forecast by mode of transportation
— Automobile: 49.13 million.
— Air: 4.69 million.
— Other: 1.55 million.
— Total: 55.37 million.
2022 travelers by mode of transportation
— Automobile: 48.3 million.
— Air: 4.4 million.
— Other: 1.4 million.
— Total: 54.1 million.
Road work suspended
To help handle the surge of traffic through Chattanooga over the holiday weekend, state highway crews will suspend major road construction projects starting at noon Wednesday and continuing through 6:30 a.m. Monday. Most schools will be closed Wednesday, and traffic is projected to be busiest Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
"Thanksgiving is typically the most traveled holiday of the year," TDOT Commissioner Butch Eley said in an announcement Monday of the construction suspension this week. "Halting road work during this time will provide maximum capacity on our highways and help alleviate congestion, especially during the predicted peak travel days of Wednesday and Sunday."
Eley said TDOT's regional Help Trucks will also be working throughout the holiday weekend to assist with incidents that may occur along the interstates.
"Watch out for them — move over, slow down," he said. "It's the law."
While all lane closure activity will be stopped, long-term lane closures will remain in place on some construction projects, including along Interstate 24 through Chattanooga, where traffic frequently becomes bottled up.
Inrix, a provider of transportation data and insights, expects Wednesday to be the busiest day on the roads during the Thanksgiving holiday travel period, with average travel times as high as 80% over normal in some metro areas. Inrix recommends leaving in the morning or after 6 p.m. to avoid the heaviest holiday congestion.
"The day before Thanksgiving is notoriously one of the most congested days on our roadways. Travelers should be prepared for long delays, especially in and around major metros," said Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at Inrix.
Taking to the sky
But higher fares aren't reducing airline trips. AAA expects 4.7 million people will fly over Thanksgiving, an increase of 6.6% compared to 2022 and the highest number of Thanksgiving air travelers since 2005.
Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving are the busiest air travel days ahead of the holiday and the most expensive. While Sunday is typically the busiest day to return home, AAA data shows Monday is also a popular day to fly back after Thanksgiving.
Nationwide, the Transportation Security Administration said it expects to screen 30 million passengers during its Thanksgiving travel period, which runs from Nov. 17 to Nov. 28.
"We expect this holiday season to be our busiest ever," TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement. "In 2023, we have already seen seven of the top 10 busiest travel days in TSA's history."
Chattanooga's airport won't be as affected as hub airports like Atlanta this week during the holiday travel surge, however.
April Cameron, Lovell Field's chief executive, said in an interview Monday that Chattanooga isn't slammed by travelers this week. Chattanooga typically tends to lean more on business travel, which is a little down during the holiday, she said.
"It's not a normal week for us," she said.
Austin Davis, who was waiting for a flight Monday to Idaho to spend Thanksgiving with his mother and other family members, said he likes to fly out of Chattanooga's Lovell Field. Davis, who said he flew 75 flights on one airline last year, said in an interview that flying in and out of cities such as Atlanta and Los Angeles is "a nightmare."
Chattanooga has cheapest fuel in Tennessee
While air travel grows, AAA estimates more than 90% of travel during the Thanksgiving week will still be by car, an increase of 1.7% from last year.
Chattanooga motorists are enjoying gas prices nearly 40 cents a gallon cheaper, on average, than a year ago. On Monday, the Raceway gas station on South Broad Street cut the price of regular gas to $2.39 a gallon — undercutting the $2.47-a-gallon price of regular at the Kwik Trip station at Sam's Club on Lee Highway. The two Chattanooga stations have the the cheapest gasoline in Tennessee, according to a survey released Monday by GasBuddy.com.
Chattanooga gas prices average 56 cents a gallon less than the U.S. average and 9 cents a gallon below the statewide average across Tennessee.
"It's great to see prices coming down again and giving us a little bit more money to keep in our pockets," Chattanooga motorist Gary Long said Monday while filling up his pickup at the Sam's Club station. "But there's not a lot we can do when prices go up, except shop around for the best buy."
Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, said Chattanooga gas prices have declined nearly $1.80 a gallon for regular fuel from the peak reached in May 2022 and the decline is likely to continue.
"As millions of Americans gear up to hit the road for Thanksgiving, the national average is seeing its longest streak of declines in over a year, reaching a ninth straight week as gas prices fall to their lowest since January," De Haan said in a report Monday. "The fall in gas prices, largely seasonal due to weakening gasoline demand, could extend for another week or two, leading to potentially the lowest gas prices since 2021 by Christmas."