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Writer Helen Huthnance explains what Americans will endure for a special meal with friends and family every year.
Text by: Helen Huthnance
Country: United States

t’s a Wednesday afternoon in late November. We’ve rushed from work, suitcases in tow, to get to the airport the required three hours early. After the long lines at the counter to check-in the bags, we finally get to security only to have to wait in line again with a multitude of other travelers, some of whom seem new to air travel.

Signs everywhere indicate that you must remove your laptop from your carry-on bag, take your shoes off and place them in a bin, and that you’re allowed only a 1-quart Ziploc bag filled with 3-ounce containers of liquids. And yet, there is inevitably the teenager who is carrying a bottle of water or a soda can, the businessman who waits until the last minute to remove his jacket or empty his pockets, and sometimes even the clueless traveler with a penknife who seems utterly surprised that he can’t travel with it.

After all the delays, the waiting in lines, the undressing and pat-downs at the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) counter, we finally make it to the gate, find a seat, and resign ourselves to wait for hours before we’re called to board the flight. But we’ve come prepared: we have our laptops and books to keep us busy if we get bored. And most airports now have plenty of restaurants and bars to keep travelers entertained and spending money.

Finally we hear the crackle of the intercom and turn to gather our stuff in preparation for boarding. But no, it’s a message telling us the flight has been delayed. So we sit back down and settle in for another hour of waiting. There is no point in getting upset; it won’t make the plane get there any faster.

As I’m sitting there waiting for the boarding call, I look around and see the gate area packed with people and I wonder how the airline staff will get all of us on the plane. Sure enough, a few minutes later the intercom crackle starts again, and an attendant is asking for people to give up their seats. At first the airline offers an overnight stay in a hotel with meals included and the first flight out the next day, but airlines must always offer this if they bump you from a flight. Next they offer a free flight to anywhere Alaska Airlines flies, but still no bites. They raise the stakes and offer two free tickets, but still nobody seems interested. Finally they raise it to three free tickets. I ask my husband if it would be so terrible if we flew out the next morning, and in the end we decide to give up our seats and take the free tickets.

We get our bags and free tickets and vouchers, and as we’re walking back through the incredibly crowded airport, we see this same scene repeated. Is it worth the trouble, I ask myself. And I imagine countless other travelers are asking the same question. And the answer is: yes, definitely! Spending Thanksgiving with family, makes putting up with all the inconveniences worthwhile.

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, when families gather to express gratitude for their good fortune and dine on turkey and other traditional foods. It is also one of the busiest travel holidays in the U.S. But most travelers would agree that all the hassle is worth it to spend some quality time with their families.

Catherine Nabb, a mother of four, recently moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to Charleston, South Carolina, with her youngest daughter, Sophia. Her three oldest daughters no longer live in Atlanta, so I asked if she’d be going back for the holiday to see her sisters and the rest of the family.

“Originally I hadn’t planned on going. Five hours is a long drive. But then Victoria decided she’d be flying in from New Mexico and Chelsea will be driving up from Valdosta and it felt sad not to spend Thanksgiving with the kids. So I decided after all that it was worth it, even if Bridget won’t be able to make it home from France.”

Last year over 46 million people traveled for Thanksgiving by plane, train, bus, car, or a combination of these. That is four times the population of Belgium! You might take a flight to a large airport, only to transfer to a small plane to get to a smaller airport, and finally a bus or car to drive you an hour in to that small town where you grew up.

The 1987 film “Planes, Trains and Automobileshumorously dealt with the pain of traveling home for Thanksgiving. It was quite popular as audiences could relate to the frustrations encountered by the characters on their quest to get home in time for the holiday but also to the joy of spending Thanksgiving with people you love.

Today, however, travel has become quite a bit more complicated. Waits are longer with all the new security measures in place, but technology has also made some parts of the process easier. You can check-in for your flight from home, 24 hours ahead of time. If you lose or forget your boarding pass, you can just look it up on your phone and present that at the gate. And for those who travel by car, apps can help you find people with whom to share a ride, splitting the costs of fuel and having some company on the road. Furthermore, a GPS ensures you don’t get lost and can help you avoid traffic jams.

And it’s not just those living inside the U.S. who travel home for the holiday. Colin Fain has been living in Santiago, Chile, for the past four years. Although he travels to the U.S. about once a year, he hasn’t been able to make it home to his mother’s for Thanksgiving since he’s been living there. This year, however, he is going to make it home for the holiday, along with his grandmother who will be flying in from the UK, his brother and his family who will be flying in from Germany, and his sister and her husband who will be flying from Utah to Orlando, Florida.

I asked him what changed this year to make the trip possible. “My mom flies a lot for work,” he said, “and this year she’s decided to fly us all home using her mileage. I haven’t had a proper Thanksgiving in ages and I can’t wait to have my mom’s turkey and her green bean casserole, my favorite!”

A trip home for Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without taking food to share. It is not surprising to see people at the airport or in bus stations carrying containers with their aunt’s pecan pie or Grandma’s sweet potato casserole. My signature dish was always the cranberry relish, which I made from scratch with fresh cranberries. My husband is renowned for his pies: pecan, pumpkin, apple, and mincemeat. It is even rumored that when people have been stranded at airports on Thanksgiving Day due to bad weather, they have plenty of sides to have a full Thanksgiving meal—minus the turkey, of course.

This year, alas, we won’t make it either to my parents nor my in-laws for Thanksgiving. We now live overseas, and due to the high cost of travel and work priorities, it’s not always possible to go home. But we have a group of local and foreign friends who enjoy the holiday, so we will be making the most of it with everyone preparing a typical Thanksgiving dish to share. We will make a delicious turkey with all the trimmings, and there will be plenty of pies—one per person, if my husband gets his way.

Unfortunately you can’t find fresh cranberries in Chile, so we will have to settle for canned cranberry sauce, although I find it terribly unnatural to eat something that comes out of a can in a solid, gelatinous, cylindrical shape. Some of the other dishes may have to be adjusted as well. Nonetheless, we will decorate the house with typical autumn decorations, even though it’s spring here. And we will be grateful for all that we have and for the opportunity to share it with others.


● Most holiday travel tends to be domestic.
● About half of all travelers make same-day trips without spending the night away.
● Long-distance travelers who do spend the night away tend to spend an average of just three nights away.
● The average Thanksgiving long-distance trip length is 214 miles.
● Most long-distance personal travel, about 91%, is by car.


The Great Thanksgiving Migration

Every year, millions of Americans travel long distances to spend Thanksgiving with their families. They endure long lines at security counters, cancelled flights, and traffic jams just to get home in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Last year over 46 million people traveled for Thanksgiving by plane, train, bus, car, or a combination of these. That is four times the population of Belgium!

Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel holidays in the U.S. But most travelers agree that all the hassle is worthwhile. Thanksgiving is not just about eating turkey and other traditional foods. It's a time for families to get together and express their gratitude for their good fortune.

Although travel is more complicated today and waits are longer, technology also makes some parts of the process easier. You can now check-in for your flight from home, 24 hours ahead of time. You can present your boarding pass on your phone. And if you travel by car, you can use apps to find someone to share a ride and costs or you can use GPS so you don't get lost.

Americans who live overseas and can't go home for the holiday, often get together with friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. They eat the traditional Thanksgiving dishes, but more importantly, they can express their gratitude for everything they have and the opportunity to share it with others.



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The Great Thanksgiving Migration



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