Christmas, New Year’s travel projected to near to pre-pandemic levels. Here’s what to expect

Dec 20, 2022, 10:45 AM | Updated: 3:03 pm
People wait to check bags at the American Airlines counter at Salt Lake City International Airport ...
People wait to check bags at the American Airlines counter at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on July 1. Airport officials are expecting crowds of up to 30,000 people every day ahead of and directly after Christmas Day this Sunday. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)
(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — About 113 million Americans are expected to travel either by car, plane or any other mode of transportation between the Christmas holiday weekend through the end of 2022 and into the beginning of 2023, according to a AAA travel outlook released last week.

The organization estimates that nearly 102 million, or 9 out of 10 people, will travel by personal vehicle among those who travel between Friday and Jan. 2, 2023. Another 7.7 million are expected to take to the skies, while the rest will either use rail, bus or cruise ship. Its estimates are based on projected travel of 50 miles or more during the 11-day span.

Combined, the numbers represent a projected 3.3% increase from a similar stretch in 2021, though the estimates would still remain 5.5% below 2019 figures. Airline travel (14%) and other forms of travel (23%) have the largest predicted increases, as both inch closer to travel figures from before the COVID-19 pandemic. The airlines’ expected 2.2% decline from 2019 is the closest to pre-pandemic levels of all the modes of transportation.

While it has the least amount of year-to-year growth, the AAA adds that more people are expected to drive this year than last year.

Some of that has to do with falling gas prices, which have now slipped below what prices were ahead of the holidays last year. For example, Utah’s average of $3.50 per gallon of regular gas is about a nickel below the average a year ago. The average on Monday is also $1.76 below the record-high peak of $5.26 per gallon in July, according to AAA data.

Executives from both the organization’s local and national offices say that timing of the holidays factors in this year’s travel outlook, too. Christmas and New Year’s Day each fall on Sundays this year, which means many companies are observing Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day on weekdays. Some post-pandemic trends are also emerging on top of the shortened final workweek of 2022, resulting in more travel time.

“With hybrid work schedules, we are seeing more people take long weekends to travel because they can work remotely at their destination and be more flexible with the days they depart and return,” says Paula Twidale, the organization’s senior vice president of travel.

Salt Lake City airport prepares for busy Christmas travel

Salt Lake City International Airport officials said Monday that they expect up to 30,000 passengers apiece on Thursday, Friday and the Monday after Christmas Day, especially as airline travel returns to near pre-pandemic levels. Many more people are expected to meander through the airport’s concourses to reach connecting flights.

Officials advise people to plan ahead before flying out of the airport. Travel information website Upgraded Points recommends that travelers arrive at Salt Lake City International Airport about 2 hours and 17 minutes before their flight, based on their research on airport size, traffic volume and other factors.

Salt Lake City’s suggested arrival time is the 18th-earliest among the 50 airports the group analyzed; Chicago O’Hare International Airport (3 hours and 4 minutes) has the earliest recommendation, while John Glenn International Airport in Columbus, Ohio, (1 hour) had the latest recommendation.

Salt Lake City airport officials also recommend that travelers:

  • Arrive 3 hours in advance for international flights.
  • Check their airlines’ websites or apps before leaving for the airport to make sure their flights are on time.
  • Check in online through airlines’ websites or apps before leaving for the airport to save time.
  • Reserve airport parking in advance. A number of parking options and rates are available. Otherwise, travelers can use Utah Transit Authority’s green line TRAX train, which stops outside the airport’s main concourse.
  • Review what the Transportation Security Administration allows to be packed in carry-on and checked luggage.

They also recommend that people use the airport’s Park and Wait lot while they wait to pick up passengers, only stopping at the curbside pickup when a passenger is ready to be picked up.

To welcome passengers departing and arriving on the holiday weekend, the airport has scheduled local musicians to perform in the terminal and concourses on Dec. 24 and the big man himself, Santa Claus, is scheduled to fly-in to take last minute wishes and spread holiday cheer.


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Christmas, New Year’s travel projected to near to pre-pandemic levels. Here’s what to expect