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If Memorial Day 2023 was any indication, travelers should brace for big Fourth of July crowds at airports. On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened roughly 2.7 million people at U.S. airports, the highest checkpoint volume thus far in 2023.
And summer travel is only just getting started. In 2019, the Friday before Memorial Day was the third-busiest day at U.S. airports for the entire year, losing only to the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the Sunday after July Fourth. This may indicate that airports could be even busier around Independence Day than Memorial Day weekend.
Making Fourth of July travel predictions is tricky this year because the holiday falls midweek, on a Tuesday. Some folks may take Monday off to enjoy a long weekend, while others may save their vacation time for a different holiday.
With that in mind, here’s some guidance around booking July Fourth weekend air travel and how you might be able to avoid the crowds (and potentially save money on airfare).
The best and worst days to fly July Fourth weekend
TSA collects data daily to capture the number of passengers screened at its U.S. checkpoints. NerdWallet analyzed the past four years of this data for the seven days before and after July Fourth.
In each of the past four years, the Friday before July Fourth was the busiest travel day ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. If that trend continues this year, travelers should expect U.S. airports to be especially full on Friday, June 30. This year though, the Federal Aviation Administration expects Thursday, June 29 to be the busiest day to fly ahead of the holiday, perhaps as the onslaught of remote workers allows travelers to jet off early without actually missing work.
Are airports busy on July Fourth? The data shows the holiday is the least busy day to fly, with airport crowds averaging just 81% of what they are relative to the busiest travel day. The FAA's predictions show the same.
Based on an average of the past four years, here are the worst days to travel around July Fourth weekend, ranked from most to least crowded.
Instead, consider these options. Here’s what the data showed as the best days to travel over July Fourth, ranked from least to most crowded:
The smarter, cheaper Fourth of July travel itinerary
Based on recent historical trends, most people will kick off their Fourth of July weekend as early as possible, jetting off on Friday, June 30 — or even ducking out of the workweek early by departing on Thursday, June 29. Most travelers will likely maximize their weekends, waiting until Sunday, July 9, to fly home.
But following typical July Fourth holiday travel patterns could mean costs in terms of airfare and time spent waiting in line at the airport. Deviate from that schedule to find lighter crowds and perhaps better July Fourth flight deals, too.
Try these travel days instead:
Embrace Saturday travel: Rather than rush out from work on Friday afternoon to jump on a flight, relax at home that evening and depart Saturday morning instead. Simply shifting your trip by one day could likely result in going from one of the busiest to lightest travel days of the July Fourth travel period.
The same goes for traveling back home. While it can be tempting to extend your trip as long as possible before work starts on Monday, skip the Sunday flight and fly home on Saturday instead. Bonus: You’ll give yourself a day at home to rest and recover before you hit the next workweek (how responsible of you).
Fly on July Fourth: If you don’t mind traveling on the holiday, you’re looking at the single emptiest air travel day of the period.
Do one better by flying out early on the holiday. Travel booking app Hopper’s spring 2023 Flight Disruption Outlook found that flights that depart from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. are half as likely to be delayed versus flights with scheduled departure times after 9 a.m.
Plus, a morning flight improves your odds of catching the fireworks at your final destination.
Fly on Wednesday, July 5: Will July 5 be a busy travel day in 2023? Likely no. This year, July 5 falls on a Wednesday, one of the cheapest days to fly year-round. Plus, according to TSA’s data, July 5 has been a consistently light travel day. In 2019, July 5 was the lightest travel day for the week after the holiday (July 5 fell on a Friday that year).
Moreover, for U.S. domestic economy tickets in 2022, Wednesdays were about 22% lower than peak prices on Sundays, according to a NerdWallet analysis of Hopper data.
July Fourth travelers in 2023 can feel confident that a July 5 flight itinerary will afford them cheaper airfare plus less congested airport queues.
What about driving on July Fourth?
While airports will be packed, the roads won't be much better. According to AAA projections, an estimated 43.2 million people will drive to their destinations, an increase of 2.4% over 2022 and 4% higher than 2019 — and thus setting a record for the number of Americans traveling by car for the holiday.
The uptick in drivers might have something to do with gas prices, which happily are well below what they were this time last year. The national average for a gallon of regular gas has been more than $1 less over the past couple months than what it was on July 4, 2022, according to AAA. If you are driving and are seeking to save money on gas, use gas price apps and pay with a gas credit card so you earn bonus points at gas stations.
But if you're driving a car that you expect to book from a rental car agency, be prepared to pay up. The average cost of a car rental today is nearly 50% higher than the same month in 2019 pre-pandemic, according to NerdWallet's travel price tracker, which is based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Boats and buses will be just as busy. AAA expects 3.36 million people will travel by bus, cruise, or train over the long weekend, which is 24% more than folks who used those transit methods last year.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card