If you’re looking to fly out of an emptier airport this Christmas, you’ll have a better chance in South Carolina, Maine and Alaska, according to a ValuePenguin analysis of 2019 Bureau of Transportation Statistics data from the 100 largest U.S. airports.
Holidays are stressful times to travel, but COVID-19 in 2020 is increasing tension for many potential travelers. For those making the choice to travel this month, flying out of an emptier airport may limit the risk of exposure and allow for a little peace of mind.
- Key findings
- Attention all passengers: These were the emptiest airports last Christmas
- Florida passengers saw the fullest airports last Christmas
- Among the busiest airports, Las Vegas was the least crowded — but traffic was still close to normal
- Look to late-night flights to avoid crowded airports amid coronavirus crisis
- 6 safety and travel tips if you’re planning to fly this Christmas holiday
- Passengers flying out of Myrtle Beach, S.C., last December departed from the emptiest airport. Nearly 52,700 flew out of Myrtle Beach International Airport in December 2019, compared with its monthly average that year of more than 106,700, meaning December travel out of the airport was 49.3% that of a typical month. Up next were Portland International Jetport in Maine and Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Alaska.
- 3 Florida airports — in warmer climates — were the fullest airports. Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, Southwest Florida International Airport (Fort Myers) and Palm Beach International Airport all saw December 2019 passenger traffic that was at least 17% higher than the average month that year.
- The biggest airports tend to be a bit busier in December, so it may be difficult this month for many passengers to avoid the rush. Of the 10 busiest U.S. airports, only 3 saw less passenger volume in December 2019 than their monthly average: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia, Denver International Airport in Colorado and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport in Nevada.
- One piece of good news for flyers worried about crowds this year: Transportation Security Administration data shows that the number of travelers in November 2020 was about one-third the level it was in November 2019. That trend has also continued during the first nine days of December 2020 compared with the same period in December 2019.
Attention all passengers: These were the emptiest airports last Christmas
Myrtle Beach International Airport was the least crowded airport among the 100 largest U.S. airports in December 2019 compared with the rest of the year — and by a significant margin.
Airports in Maine, Alaska, Georgia and New Hampshire also experienced the least crowded terminals in December 2019, indicating they could again be a less crowded option for travelers this year. The other top five least crowded airports last Christmas were:
- No. 2: Portland International Jetport (Maine)
- No. 3: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (Alaska)
- No. 4: Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (Georgia)
- No. 5: Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (New Hampshire)
ValuePenguin travel credit cards writer Stella Shon said these significant December travel drops may be due to a lack of tourism appeal during the winter months. Myrtle Beach, for example, can remain chilly through April.
"Maine, Alaska and New Hampshire are popular destinations in the summer due to their cold climates in the winter," she said. "Although Myrtle Beach and Savannah have much more temperate climates in the winter, these are much more popular destinations to visit during the other seasons because of their beaches and other outdoor activities."
Basically, these being off-peak destinations likely contributed to the slower Decembers.
Florida passengers saw the fullest airports last Christmas
Sarasota Bradenton International Airport was the most crowded airport among the 100 largest in the U.S. in December 2019 compared with the rest of the year, while two other Florida airports landed in the top three spots. Arizona airports rounded out the top five, likely because of the milder winters.
Here are the rest of the top five of the most crowded airports last Christmas beyond Sarasota Bradenton:
- No. 2: Southwest Florida International Airport
- No. 3: Palm Beach International Airport
- No. 4: Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport
- No. 5: Tucson International Airport
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends postponing any holiday travel and staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"Florida is the warmest part of the country during this month, with an endless number of beaches, so it's no surprise that this state had the fullest airports last holiday season," Shon said. The state also has a large retirement population.
Similar to Florida, Arizona experiences a warm and dry winter, which makes it another popular destination for the season. "Although the pandemic has limited travel, it wouldn't be surprising if the same airports were among the busiest airports in 2020," Shon said.
Among the busiest airports, Las Vegas was the least crowded — but traffic was still close to normal
Even typically busy airports aren’t immune to holiday slumps. Despite Las Vegas McCarran International Airport being the sixth-busiest airport in the U.S., it came in 12th on our list of the least crowded December airports.
Understandably, avoiding holiday crowds at the generally more crowded airports will be tricky. Locals in Las Vegas, Atlanta and Denver may find that their airports are just as crowded as they usually are.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Denver International Airport and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport were the only airports among the top 10 largest with December traffic that was less than 100% of the monthly average — and even so, all saw 98.3% to 99.8% of their typical monthly travelers.
On the flip side, two of the 10 largest airports saw a significant uptick in passenger traffic in December. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Arizona and Orlando International Airport in Florida both saw a passenger spike of at least 8% in December compared with the average month that year.
Look to late-night flights to avoid crowded airports amid coronavirus crisis
While the early bird usually catches the worm, night owls might be in luck when it comes to avoiding airport crowds this Christmas.
In December 2019 nationally, less than 7% of flights took off after 9 p.m. (local times). On the other hand, the busiest time for flights in December 2019 was the 6 a.m. hour, so sticking to a later flight time may be helpful for avoiding crowds amid the coronavirus spread.
"For those who want to avoid crowds — particularly in light of the pandemic — traveling in the evening and on red-eye flights may result in emptier loads," Shon said.
Nighttime flying may also result in better mask compliance, as many passengers during these flights are asleep or have already eaten. Those with children and older adults may want to reconsider taking red-eyes.
Flying on Christmas Eve, Christmas can help with crowds
While you'll be cutting it pretty close, flying on Christmas Eve or Christmas can help you avoid airport crowds. Both of those dates only made up 2.7% of flights in December 2019, compared with 3.6% on Dec. 1 and 3.4% on four December days post-Christmas.
6 safety and travel tips if you’re planning to fly this Christmas holiday
A November 2020 ValuePenguin survey found that only 3% of Americans were planning to fly out of state over the Thanksgiving holiday, which suggests that holiday travel will likely slow this December, too.
Between COVID-19 concerns and travel restrictions, many families chose to stay home. That being said, if you're planning to travel this Christmas, Shon shared travel tips that may help you protect your health and your wallet.
No. 1: Research your airline
Before booking, Shon recommends confirming whether your airline is blocking middle seats or capping flight loads. She said Delta is the only legacy airline committed to blocking middle seats, which it's doing through March 30, 2021.
No. 2: Minimize your contact with others as much as possible
This can be hard to avoid when you're traveling during such a busy time — especially at crowded airports — but Shon urges travelers to try their best to keep their distance. And make sure to carry extra cleaning supplies, because you don't want to run out of hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes. "It doesn't hurt to wipe down your surfaces one more time," Shon said.
No. 3: Get a contactless credit card
It's more important now than ever, Shon said, to decrease your touch points. Many credit card companies have offered contactless cards amid the coronavirus pandemic. Check out ValuePenguin's top picks for contactless credit cards.
No. 4: Consider purchasing travel insurance
While your travel rewards card may come with complimentary trip insurance, chances are it won't cover any interruption or cancellation due to COVID-19. "If you're nervous about travel, you can look into purchasing 'cancel-for-any-reason' travel insurance," Shon said. "While it can be costly, you'll want to protect your trip in case of an emergency."
No. 5: Use points and miles
For frequent travelers, Shon advised not letting points and miles go to waste — if they can be used safely — as airline rewards are constantly devaluing. Make sure to check the expiration dates on those points and miles.
No. 6: Apply for a travel rewards credit card
"It may seem silly to apply for a travel card when travel is so limited, but issuers are offering excellent sign-up bonuses that are hard to pass up," Shon said. If your trip is canceled or delayed, or if your bags are lost or stolen, your travel rewards card may provide reimbursement. "It's nice to have that extra security around the holidays," Shon said.
ValuePenguin researchers analyzed U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data to find the least crowded airports. We calculated the monthly average of passengers departing the 100 largest airports in the U.S. in 2019, then compared this figure to the number of departing passengers in December 2019 to find the least crowded airports during that month.