More than 55 million Americans are expected to hit the road or fly for Thanksgiving this year. AAA says that’s the third-highest Thanksgiving travel forecast over the past 23 years.
Lauren Duffy, an associate professor who teaches travel and tourism courses at Clemson University, said people are confident in the relative stability of the economy and job growth. That confidence is a factor prompting more people traveling over the river and through the woods this year.
But the travel behavior of baby boomers in particular, a trend of mixing business with pleasure during holiday excursions and residuals from the pandemic also are fueling the travel surge. The result could be longer vacations and additional spending that could broadly affect the state of South Carolina this Thanksgiving, she adds.
Increase in aging travelers
What’s especially notable is an 8% increase in baby boomers who are expected to be traveling this holiday break, Duffy said. They plan to travel farther, but not necessarily to visit family and friends, Duffy said. Many will make it a four-day trip and turn the holiday into time for themselves, too.
“Places like Hilton Head and Kiawah Island are probably going to see that market,” Duffy told the Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet, “people who aren’t just visiting relatives but also taking vacation.”
Steady gas prices will also encourage them to drive, which offers more flexibility, as opposed to flying.
Knocking out emails during vacation
Another change in the Thanksgiving holiday traveling demographic this year is an increase in so called “Bleisure” travel, which refers to those who are inclined to blend business and leisure, knocking out a few emails before they knock back a few cocktails while visiting family, Duffy said.
Coming out of the pandemic, a phenomena known “revenge travel,” or people taking longer trips lost due to COVID-19, swept the country, but that’s died down, Duffy said. The pandemic also brought the rise of digital nomads, allowing travel while working. More people are now returning to physical work places. However, the blending of work and life has become a part of how we think about vacations now, resulting in longer trips and more mixing of work and play, Duffy says.
“Many people are going with the expectation that they plan work,” Duffy says.
Local KOA welcomes Thanksgiving rush
AAA predicts 55.4 million travelers nationwide, which is a 2.3% increase over Thanksgiving 2022. Four of the top domestic destinations are Florida cities with Orlando topping the list.
Bill Oldendorf, who owner of the Points South KOA campground outside of Yemasse 25 miles northwest of Beaufort, is well-positioned to take advantage of the Thanksgiving travel rush. He’s located on Interstate 95 near Exit 33 which sees 50,000 cars daily.
Some of Oldendorf’s Points South KOA guests will be weary layover travelers from the north heading south to escape the cold or visit family. Others will be “staycationers,” locals from Bluffton, the Sea Islands or Charleston, who forsake longer drives or a long day of cooking at home for a four-day camping excursion.
Thanksgiving dinner at the KOA has become a tradition.
Points South supplies the turkey. The guests chip in with the sides. The tradition at the 40-year-old Points South KOA began a decade ago and quickly caught on, with people returning back year after year, says Oldendorf, who owns the campground with his daughter, Jennifer Mason.
“Everybody loves to bring sides and you end up with an entire campground filled with people having a nice Thanksgiving dinner,” Oldendorf says.
After the pandemic hit, people started coming down and spending 4 or 5 nights at the KOA. But travel patterns are beginning to return to pre-pandemic routines, with folks staying fewer days.
The extended Thanksgiving holiday, he adds, allows people to stay at the 49-site KOA longer, like they did throughout COVID-19. There’s a special camaraderie during Thanksgiving between the campers “who love to have evening potlucks.”
“It’s going to be very busy for the next week,” Oldendorf said Friday.
Gas prices favorable for a drive
Most Thanksgiving travelers — some 49.1 million — will drive to their destinations. As of Friday, the price per gallon of regular gas was $3.333, compared to $3.725 a year ago. In South Carolina, AAA said the average price per gallon was $2.961.
Another 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.
“We’re expecting it to be really busy,” said Lori Lynah, a spokeswoman at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport.
Airport will see 80,000 passengers
The airport is anticipating up to 80,000 total passengers traveling during the week of Thanksgiving, a 10% increase over last year. The heaviest travel days are expected to be Wednesday through Sunday.
Extra parking is necessary to handle the influx. “We will definitely be in an overflow situation,” Lynah said. Lots closest to the terminal will fill up first so signs have been put up directing people to extra lots. Shuttles will run to and from overflow parking to the airport.
Throughout the year, the airport has been able to book more passengers because some of its 11 airlines are making additional seats available via larger aircraft. Year-to-date, available seats are up 9.4% while passengers have increased 10 percent.
Some people will hit the beach
Some people will spend Thanksgiving on the beach.
At Hunting Island State Park, about 20 miles east of Beaufort, 94.7% of the 102 camp sites with electric and water and 25 tent locations were sold between Wednesday and Saturday.
The picturesque campground on the Atlantic Ocean is becoming a Thanksgiving tradition for many families, said Samantha Queen, a spokeswoman for South Carolina’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism.
“If you are going to camp anywhere in November in South Carolina that’s a good place to do it,” Queen said of Hunting Island, the state’s most popular state park.
Not only does the park remain staffed and open Thanksgiving Day, scheduled programs continue at the nature center until 2 p.m.
Thanksgiving Day travel numbers
▪ 49.1 million Americans will get behind the wheel, an increase of 1.7% compared to 2022.
▪ 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.
▪ 1.55 million travelers will head out of town by cruise ship, bus or train, an 11% increase
Top places to go
▪ Domestic holiday destinations: Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Anaheim, Calif. and Tampa.
▪ International destinations: Cancun, Mexico, Mexico City, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, Bahrain and Rome.
Worst times to drive
▪ 2-6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 22; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday; noon-4 p.m. Friday; 3-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday