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Wisconsin could see one of the busiest Thanksgivings on record for holiday travel

Over 1M Wisconsinites expected to travel this holiday, with 960K on the road

Beltline in Madison
U.S. Highway 12/14 in Madison, Wis. Bill Martens/WPR

Wisconsin could be in store for one of the busiest Thanksgivings on record, with over one million people expected to travel this week.

AAA predicts the state will experience its third-busiest Thanksgiving holiday travel period for auto travel, while also setting a new record for air travel. The travel period runs from Wednesday through Sunday.

“This is gonna be a big holiday for travel, ending what has been a really big year for travel,” said Nick Jarmusz, director of public affairs for AAA Wisconsin. “We’re not back up to the all-time high that we set in 2019, but we really are back to what would be kind of the normal range of travel that we saw before the pandemic.”

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Over 960,000 Wisconsinites are expected to drive for the holiday, representing the vast majority of Thanksgiving travelers.

This year, drivers will also be able to enjoy lower gas prices than they did last November. According to AAA, average Wisconsin gas prices are down from $3.23 per gallon last November to $3.14 per gallon.

Jarmusz said those planning to drive for Thanksgiving should try to plan ahead and expect to run into congested roadways, especially in major metropolitan areas.

“Leave early (and) give yourself extra time, so that you don’t feel rushed and feel pressured to speed or drive unsafely once the congestion does clear up,” he said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation anticipates the busiest times to be on the roads are from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, noon to 4 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

When navigating during peak travel times, Randy Hoyt, state traffic management unit supervisor for the department, said it’s crucial for drivers to avoid distractions, like being on their phones, and to focus solely on the roadway.

Hoyt also said drivers need to be cognizant of others who may be stopped on the side of the road, and remember to slow down for emergency vehicles.

“The most dangerous place you can be is on the side of the road because we know we have distracted drivers, people who are on their phones, texting and not paying attention to what’s happening in front of them,” he said. “When you have an emergency vehicle — or any vehicle for that matter — stopped on the shoulder, it’s very important to give them space.”

Construction on U.S. 151 in Dane County and I-43 in Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties could also cause delays for travelers this Thanksgiving.

Hoyt said the agency does not have active construction going on during the holiday, but there are lane closures as a result of those projects. That reduces lane widths as traffic shifts around a project.

“For travelers, when they’re traveling through the work zones, because you have reduced lane width, it’s even more important to pay attention,” he said. “You don’t have as much room to move there.”

While Thanksgiving remains an “auto-dominated holiday” in Wisconsin, a record 113,515 Wisconsinites are expected to travel via plane this holiday weekend, said Jarmusz with AAA.

He said increased direct flight options out of airports across the state have made flying a more viable option for some families.

“Those direct flights make air travel a much more attractive and practical option for folks if you don’t have to worry about connecting flights, delays or layovers,” Jarmusz said. “While airfares are a little higher on average than they were last year, they’re only about 5 percent higher. So it’s not a huge increase.”

Beyond auto and air travel, nearly 30,000 Wisconsinites are expected to travel via cruise, bus or train, according to AAA. That’s up by almost 11 percent from last year.

Hoyt added the state is encouraging those navigating Wisconsin roadways this Thanksgiving to check the 511 Wisconsin website and app before departing for updates on weather conditions and accidents on the roads.

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