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Travelers walk with their suitcases inside airport

Travelers walk with their suitcases at Midway International Airport on Nov. 17, 2023.

Pat Nabong

A record number of Thanksgiving travelers are expected at O’Hare and Midway

Brace for the crowds before the cranberry sauce.

More people are expected to head to O’Hare, Midway and other airports in the state this Thanksgiving season than in any past travel season on record for the November holiday.

About 290,000 people are expected to take flights in Illinois for Thanksgiving, up 8.1% from 2022.

Planes, trains or automobiles, it’s largely the same.

Overall, more than 2.8 million Illinois residents are expected to be traveling next week, whether by car, flight or public transit, according to AAA.

That’s the second-highest number for all modes of travel on record and up 60,000 people from a year ago.

“Travel’s coming back,” said Jessica Mayle, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration.

“We are exceeding pre-pandemic levels now of travel. We had that big dip in 2020, and it took awhile to recover … but mostly people just want to get out and see their families and enjoy the fact that we’re able to do that again.”

But if you’re planning to bring your own special dishes for that holiday get-together, better pack the mashed potatoes and gravy in your checked luggage. (More on that later.)

With 2.4 million travelers hitting the road, Illinois is also seeing the second-highest number of people traveling by car on record this Thanksgiving season, according to the motor club. The all-time high was set Thanksgiving weekend in 2005, when 2.75 million people hit the road.

Those projections were made by AAA for the five-day period from Wednesday through Nov. 26.

Thankfully, gas prices should be lower than they were this time last year. Last Thanksgiving, the national average price for gasoline was $3.59 per gallon; the state average was $3.89. Today, drivers are paying an average of $3.55 per gallon, and AAA said gas prices should remain low.

The day before Thanksgiving is expected to be the busiest day on the road, with average travel times predicted to be 80% longer than normal in some metropolitan areas, according to AAA and INRIX, a transportation analysis company.

For Chicagoans planning to travel via Interstate-94 West toward Milwaukee, Wednesday at 4 p.m. will be the worst time to hit the road, AAA said.

Those driving Wednesday should avoid traveling between 2 and 6 p.m. The best travel time is before 11 a.m. If you’re returning Saturday or Sunday, avoid driving from 3 to 5 p.m., when congestion is the worst. The best time to drive back is before noon.

Thousands of Illinois residents will be heading out of town without sitting behind the steering wheel. AAA predicts nearly 82,000 travelers will depart by bus, train and cruise ship, up 11% from 2022.

As for air travel, the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving are the busiest and most expensive days to fly.

The TSA projects this holiday season, which for it started Friday and ends Nov. 28, will be the busiest ever. The agency is projecting that more than 950,000 passengers will be screened through checkpoints at O’Hare Airport those 12 days, Mayle said. The busiest days at O’Hare will be Wednesday and Nov. 26, with more than 80,000 people expected to be screened those two days.

At Midway Airport, more than 220,000 passengers are expected to be screened between Friday and Nov. 26, with 24,000 people expected Wednesday and 26,000 expected Nov. 26.

For those flying over the holiday season, it’s best to arrive two hours early, Mayle said.

“Consider every step of the travel journey. It’s not just getting through TSA,” she said.

Flyers should also make sure they’re not packing any prohibited items, such as knives, box cutters or any items on TSA’s website.

Baked goods, such as pie or cake, are allowed on planes, Mayle said, but any item that “you can spread, smear, spray, pour or pump” counts as a liquid.

This includes mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce, which travelers will have to pack in their checked bags. When in doubt, Mayle said, best practice is to put the item in your checked bag.

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