7 Keys to Surviving Thanksgiving Travel

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A family eating pumpkin pie for dessert on Thanksgiving.

Heading home to feast on your grandma’s famous stuffing? Or that sweet potato recipe that’s been passed down for generations?

Then you’ll probably be traveling over Thanksgiving weekend, with half a million other passengers (who probably also think their stuffing is the best). While there’s nothing quite like a giant feast surrounded by relatives, sometimes spending time with family can also be stressful.

That’s why we here at Wanderu want to make your Thanksgiving as hassle-free as it can possibly be. Even if time at home is anxiety inducing, your travel plans don’t need to be. Taking a bus or train affords you more flexibility, and it’s much cheaper than taking a plane. Riding a bus is also much more relaxing than driving yourself, navigating traffic on crowded highways.

As everyone knows, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is by far the busiest day to travel, so avoid it if you can. But even if you can’t, Wanderu is here to help!

1) The early bird gets the mashed potatoes.

A bowl of mashed potatoes prepared for Thanksgiving.

Everything about Thanksgiving travel will be better if you do it early. Book your tickets now, before the route you want fills up — especially if you’re eying the Wednesday before or the Sunday after the holiday.

Also, show up to the station early. There will be lines, and you definitely don’t want to be last. Amtrak recommends arriving at least 30 minutes early, but we can say from experience that it’s worth getting there even earlier, especially if you’re departing from a busy station. If you get there early, you’ll have better seat options (instead of picking from the few that are left), and will be able to score prime space for your luggage in the overhead racks.

Come prepared with printed tickets, or have them queued up on your mobile device. 

2) Pack your patience!

Grand Central Station

Thanksgiving travel ups the ante on everything, so don’t expect it all to go smoothly.

You will encounter long lines, loud people and lots of rowdy kids. But you can handle it! Soon you’ll be home, kicking back and relaxing with a beverage in hand, and all the anxiety will be long forgotten.

To prevent any issues, try to book a ticket that leaves room for delays, and know you will get to your destination eventually – and there will be pie. (Also, if the station you’re waiting at has a bar, a pre-travel cocktail certainly doesn’t hurt.)

3) Don't stuff your luggage like you stuff your turkey.

Other than your patience, pack as little as possible! If you’re going to be maneuvering through crowds and standing around in line, you don’t want to be weighed down by big, heavy bags. Plus, bus and train carriers tend to be extra vigilant about policing the baggage policy on busy travel days.

Amtrak allows two carry-ons and two personal items for each individual, and we have a complete guide that dives into each bus company’s baggage policy

But if baggage is a real concern, keep your Thanksgiving travel as simple and stress-free as possible: Simply pack light and keep it to a carry-on.

4) Suit up in stretchy pants

The style-du-jour of Thanksgiving travel is stretchy pants. Take a cue from Joey Tribiani and rock that elastic waistband on your trip. Sweatpants, leggings and yoga pants are all excellent choices. They’ll keep you comfortable for the ride, and you’ll have them on hand for Thanksgiving dinner without taking up any extra room in your bag.

Also, keep cozy on top with lots of layers. A sweatshirt or sweater will fight off the A/C chill that can turn a bus or a train into an igloo. Pro commuters also keep a T-shirt or tank top on underneath, in case you end up packed like sardines in a sweltering station.

Wearing accessories like a scarf, hat or coat will make for more room in your bag — and those items also make awesome pillow substitutes. 

5) Eat an early Thanksgiving buffet – of snacks.

While it’s true that you’re heading home for your biggest meal of the year, you shouldn’t starve yourself in anticipation. You definitely don’t want to deal with Thanksgiving travel while you’re hangry.

So pack some snacks that will last on the road. Granola bars, apples, nuts, carrot sticks, beef (or vegetarian) jerky and individually wrapped cheese are all your friends when it comes to feeling full and keeping the hanger at bay. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious (or just in the Thanksgiving-cooking mood), you can even make your own yummy travel snacks!

And don’t forget to stay hydrated — a nice travel water bottle makes it easy.

6) Turn your seat into an entertainment experience.

Frederick Dennstedt (edited) / Flickr

Take a mental vacation on the way home for Thanksgiving vacation, and you’ll quickly forget about all the madness surrounding you. Though the bus or train might not be the right place to Netflix and chill, per se, you can download movies or TV shows in advance to binge-watch onboard.

Plus, you’ll have access to power outlets, so the dreaded low-battery warning should not be a problem.

And, if you haven’t had the time to read that bestseller you’ve been dying to devour, this is the moment! Bring a real, physical book if you’re old school, or save space with a Kindle or other e-reader and you can have your own virtual library in your bag.

7) Be grateful for noise-canceling headphones (or earplugs).

The very best way to survive your Thanksgiving travel might just be to sleep through it. With noise-cancelling headphones  or earplugs, you can block out the cacophony of the travelers around you and transform your seat into a cone of silence. Combined with an eye mask and a neck pillow — or a rolled-up layer of clothing — you can let the movement of the bus or train lull you to sleep. Before you know it, you’ll be arriving at your destination.

Of course, if you’re more of an extrovert — or a caffeine addict who can’t sleep — you can try talking to your fellow passengers to pass the time. Everyone’s in the same boat (or bus) when it comes to Thanksgiving travel stress, and it’s nice to have someone to commiserate with — and maybe even share snacks with, in the true spirit of Thanksgiving!

With this cornucopia of Thanksgiving travel tips, you can head home for the holidays with your sanity still intact. At least until you see your family — then you’re on your own! 😬

So book your tickets now, and share your Thanksgiving travel tips and pics by tagging #wanderu on Twitter and Instagram

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About the author
Kate Sedrowski

Kate Sedrowski

Kate Sedrowski is on a mission to spread delight while inspiring and encouraging people to travel. Her favorite travel companion is her teddy bear, and her favorite souvenir is the scar from the broken nose she got in a snowball fight in Québec City.