THANKSGIVING TRAVEL GUIDE: Here’s what drivers, fliers need to know

CHARLOTTE — Thanksgiving is almost here, and holiday travelers are expected to hit the roads and take to the skies in massive numbers this year.

The American Automobile Association has predicted that more than 53.4 million people will travel for Thanksgiving in 2021, signaling the highest single-year increase since 2005.

>> ALSO READ: AAA predicts brisk post-COVID travel season for Thanksgiving holiday

Officials at Charlotte Douglas International Airport said that more than 30,000 air travelers are expected to fly out of Charlotte.

On Wednesday morning, Channel 9 crews saw long lines already forming at TSA checkpoints before 5 a.m. Some families told Channel 9 reporter Gina Esposito that they had been waiting for more than an hour.

Overflow, Daily Decks, Hourly, Express Deck and Curbside Valet parking were are all open as of Wednesday morning, but “Long Term: Reservations Only Online” parking was sold out.

There was still drive-up parking available on a first-come basis, according to airport officials.

(WATCH BELOW: Gina Esposito’s LIVE look at early morning lines at Charlotte Douglas)

More than 90% of federal workers have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. They don’t have the option to be tested regularly, so they needed to either be fully vaccinated or submit an exemption.

Federal workers in the travel sector following the mandate were one of the points of concern ahead of the holiday travel season. A White House spokesperson said 93% of TSA workers have gotten at least one shot, so there shouldn’t be any travel issues because of the mandate.

The news comes as a relief to Charlotte’s holiday travelers because they’ve seen what can happen with the lines at CLT when they are short on TSA workers.

>> READ MORE: ‘It’s aggravating’: More American flights canceled Monday at Charlotte Douglas

“It’s not as busy as I thought it would be today,” said passenger Abbi Wensyel. “It’s pretty calm for a Monday morning, holiday week.”

“It’s really been a little nerve-racking getting back out there and flying again,” said passenger Cynthia Mills. “We tried to strategically plan around the busiest days.”

The Mills family said they tried to avoid peak times to take their two children to Disney World for the first time.

“Getting out of the house after COVID is our main concern,” Jimmy Mills said.

(WATCH: Flying through CLT for Thanksgiving? Here’s what you should expect)

A TSA spokesperson told Channel 9 aside from the vaccine mandate, Charlotte’s airport has enough staff to get through the holiday rush. A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines said they have added 4,500 workers and adjusted their holiday flight schedules to meet their current staffing levels.

However, the airport is still short-staffed and needs dozens of employees. This comes as TSA agents are screening more passengers than they have since the start of the pandemic.

Major airlines have offered employees incentives to work the holiday rush to avoid mass cancelations like those from American and Southwest a few weeks ago.

Bottom line? As always, get to the airport early this year. Here are some things you need to know ahead of the busy travel season:

  • Air travelers should plan for long lines at TSA checkpoints, ticket counters and restaurants.
  • According to airport officials, the busiest days for pre-Thanksgiving travel will be Tuesday and Wednesday. After the holiday, the busiest days will be Nov. 27-29.
  • Currently, face masks or coverings are required in the terminal, parking lots and on shuttle buses. All airlines at Charlotte Douglas also require passengers to wear a mask.
  • Due to the high traffic during the holidays, travelers should arrive at the airport at least two hours before their departure time. Security wait times are listed at and on the airport’s app.

I-85 drivers are already seeing heavy traffic ahead of Thanksgiving

Kimberly Locklear said she got on Interstate 85 in Gaston County Wednesday and immediately regretted it. Chopper 9 Skyzoom flew over the stretch of road she hit and a line of cars could be seen snaking down I-85.

“It was so bad and compacted,” Locklear said. “It looked like a parking lot.”

Near I-485 and the airport, Channel 9 crews saw stop and go traffic Wednesday afternoon. It took reporter Ken Lemon 10 minutes to drive from 485 to the Gaston County line. That’s just a mile and a half.

A lot of people who were stuck in the backup are last minute drivers like Derrick Boger, who was headed to Jacksonville, Florida

“We was going to fly, but everything was booked,” Boger said.

>> ALSO READ: Plan now for high prices, crowded roads and weather for Thanksgiving travel

AAA’s Tiffany Wright said more people are vaccinated now and it may be the first time they get to gather safely with family in more than a year. Inflation, gas prices, and traffic like Wednesday’s aren’t deterrents.

“They want to be reunited with their family, their friends, their loved ones. It’s not going to stop them,” Wright said.

She said it’s like this across the country and there are still more people who may decide to drive. That means the potential for more accidents and certainly more congestion.

“Double the time that you think it would take for you to typically drive to your destination when we are not talking about holiday travel,” Wright said.

Boger prepared for just that.

“We brought us some books just in case we have to sit still a little bit,” Boger said.

The North Carolina Highway Patrol said it is preparing for the holiday season and for increased traffic across the state. During the coming weeks, troopers will proactively target dangerous driver behaviors like speeding, distracted driving and impaired driving.

According to AAA, more than 48 million people will travel by car nationwide, an increase from last year’s predictions. AAA said the increase correlates with relaxed travel restrictions.

>> ALSO READ: Holiday travel with kids: Top survival tips

Highway Patrol officials said they will increase their presence on highways in anticipation of the traffic.

“The safe travel of residents and visitors to our state is our highest priority this holiday season,” said Col. Freddy L. Johnson Jr., commander of the State Highway Patrol. “By all roadway users joining in a commitment to safe driving, we can reach our ultimate goal of no lives lost due to preventable occurrences.”

The NCSHP is partnering with the North Carolina Governors Highway Safety Program for the 2021 Thanksgiving “Click It or Ticket” campaign during this holiday period. The campaign began Monday and runs through Nov. 28 with the goal of reducing preventable injuries and deaths in collisions due to failure to use a seatbelt.

As always, drivers can call the SHP by dialing *HP(47) if law enforcement assistance is needed.

(WATCH: When should you head out the door this Thanksgiving?)

If you’re one of more than 2 million North Carolinians who plan to drive to see family or friends this Thanksgiving, you’ll want to avoid the busiest times on the roads. Channel 9 traffic anchor Mark Taylor looked at AAA data to help find out what time to head out the door.

>> Thanksgiving travel 2021: Best, worst times to hit the road

Thursday’s best time to hit the road is before 11 a.m. Most people will be on the roads between noon and 3 p.m.

On Friday, leave any time before 11 a.m. if you can. The worst time to travel is 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday are similar. If you can leave before noon, you will be able to beat the congestion as most folks will be on the roads between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Overall, Wednesday will likely be the busiest day. AAA said drivers around major metro areas like Charlotte should be prepared for significant delays all week, but especially Wednesday afternoon.

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(WATCH: Long lines slowing down holiday travelers at Charlotte Douglas)