Historically, the period around Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel times of the year. In 2019, ​AAA estimated that 55 million people in the United States traveled more than 50 miles for Thanksgiving​. Even during a pandemic, travel is only estimated to fall by 10 percent (with about ​half of air travelers opting to stay home)​.

We used the Zignal Media Intelligence Cloud to look into the conversation landscape around Thanksgiving travel in this highly unusual year.

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Methodology and Scope

This analysis was conducted within Zignal’s “Covid-19” profile (​2.2 Billion Mentions​) and filtered on keywords specific to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday (​nearly 274,000 Mentions​).

  • Date Range: November 9, 2020 – November 23, 2020 (the two weeks leading up to the Monday before Thanksgiving. For 2019 comparisons, the date range is November 11, 2019 – November 25, 2019)
  • Data sources included: Twitter, News, Broadcast, Blogs, Reddit, Facebook, Online Videos, LexisNexis and Forums
  • Note: For the “Overall Mentions (2019 vs. 2020)” section only – data is pulled from Twitter only, and is not defined by or limited to keywords related to Covid-19.

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Key Findings

  • When discussing Thanksgiving travel, media outlets are more likely to reference air travel in conjunction with health and government guidance to stay home. Conversely, road travel is generally viewed and mentioned as a much safer alternative, if traveling at all.
  • Though the vast majority (95 percent) of Thanksgiving travelers move about the country by car, media mentions of air travel and road travel are much more even than expected.
    • Traveling by air for Thanksgiving is expected to be 50 percent lower this year than in 2019. However, Twitter discussions of air travel for the holiday are nearly twice as high as they were last year.
  • Compared to the overall Covid-19 conversation, mentions of Thanksgiving travel skew less neutral and more polarized, indicating that people discussing their travel plans (or lack thereof) are more passionate and opinionated about traveling than the overall Covid-19 conversation.
    • Within these two subgroups, air travel is viewed more negatively, while driving is viewed more positively.
  • Among safety and Covid-19 prevention behaviors, wearing masks and social distancing are both referenced the most in regards to travel, though self-isolating is used more frequently in mentions referencing air travel.

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Overall Mentions (2019 vs. 2020)

Travel mentions, by year

Overall, Twitter mentions referencing road and air travel for Thanksgiving are significantly higher for 2020 than in 2019. Temporally, all mentions continue to build in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Of note, mentions of car travel from 2019 are skewed by a viral post (the blue spike on Day 4) that jokingly made reference to family driving to visit the author from the previous year’s holiday.

Though air travel is expected to be down substantially, mentions of flying for Thanksgiving are 90 percent higher in 2020 than in 2019. 

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Sentiment Breakdown (2020)

Sentiment Breakdown

Though the differences are not overwhelming, there is still a contrast in how Thanksgiving travel is being viewed and discussed online this year. The main driver of this difference is that traveling by car is generally seen as a safer option than traveling by plane. 

When media outlets discuss government and health guidance discouraging travel, they will mention airports and passenger jets, while ignoring the fact that 95 percent of Americans will be traveling by car. Recently published reports showing that the weekend of November 21 and 22 were the highest air travel days since the pandemic started only furthered this trend. 

Conversely, mentions of traveling by car ignore blanket guidance against travel, and frequently state that driving to your destination is a safer option. When discussing car travel, outlets tend to focus on advice and tips to make a road trip more fun. 

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Conversation Themes – Safety Behaviors (2020)

Top issues sentiment breakdown

When users discuss their travel plans and experiences, they frequently make reference to other things they are doing to help keep themselves and loved ones safe. For both road travel and air travel, wearing masks is the most frequently mentioned behavior, followed by social distancing. Social distancing is slightly more negative in regards to air travel conversations, as many users lament the difficulty of maintaining a safe distance on airplanes or in airports.

Those talking about flying for Thanksgiving are more likely to also mention self-isolating or quarantining upon arrival at their destination. In contrast, those driving to their destination mention self-isolating the least, but will say that they plan on working from home while visiting friends or relatives for the holiday.

However you plan to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, we hope you have a great time, stay safe, and eat well. Happy holidays from the Zignal team!