Traffic converges on highway I-495 South just west of the nation's capital on one of the busiest travel days of the year November 23, 2011 in McLean, Virginia.
Win McNamee—Getty Images
By John Patrick Pullen
November 22, 2015

When you think about Thanksgiving weekend, what springs to mind? Most likely, it’s going to high school football games, making trips to the in-laws, and even a Black Friday mall run. In fact, outside of gorging yourself with a turkey dinner and falling asleep watching sports, pretty much everything you do over the extra-long weekend will involve getting in a car and going somewhere.

Driving group AAA knows this all too well. According to its forecasts, nearly 47 million Americans will hit road over the holiday this year, the highest number since 2007. In other words, there’s going to be traffic. Everywhere.

But if you’ve got to brave the roads, when is the best time to set out? The crowdsourcing traffic and navigation app Waze has some insights on the best (and worst) times to drive during the holiday week.

Waze’s data says the best day to hit the road is Thursday, the actual day of Thanksgiving. According to the company’s analysts, wherever you’re going, the holiday will have traffic patterns similar to those of a typical weekend day. That means it’s best to take the wheel in the morning or evening, when congestion will be lightest. Try to avoid roadways between noon and 4 p.m.

The worst days of the week, meanwhile, won’t be Black Friday or either of the weekend shopping days, but rather both Tuesday and Wednesday. Basically, roads and highways start seeing an increase in traffic on 1 p.m. on Tuesday, and the gridlock sets in between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesday isn’t any better, with bottlenecks beginning at 11 a.m. and lasting all day.

But getting to the dinner table is only half the battle. Returning home is another major traffic jam in the making, especially if you go back on Sunday. According to Waze’s data, the mad dash begins at 10 a.m., and achieves maximum logjam between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Curiously, Waze’s owner, Google, has a different take on the return trip, recommending that drivers avoid going home on Saturday, saying that traffic that day can be “up to 40% worse” than on Sunday. The search giant pulls its data from Google Maps, which, while similar to Waze, is a separate product.

But pulling keyword data from Google Maps searches also generates some telling holiday facts for advance planners. For example, searches for “ham shops” have become increasingly popular on Turkey Day over the past three years; Wednesday is the day that term gets typed in most.

So what does all this data suggest? Buy your ham on Tuesday, cook it on Wednesday, and arrive home for Thanksgiving on Thursday, just in time to pop it in the oven for a quick re-heat. Then eat leftovers all weekend until Sunday night, and race the moon home. And also, before you go anywhere, download Waze and/or Google Maps to your smart phone, to share the roads (and info) with your fellow travelers.

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