Chicago airports, roads and rails prepare for Thanksgiving surge as travelers dash to destinations

CHICAGO - As the holiday season kicks off, Chicago's airports, roads and rails are gearing up for a bustling Thanksgiving travel period – with expectations of a significant uptick in passenger totals compared to last year.

Airlines, TSA agents, and airport staff are working tirelessly to streamline the travel process, but the terminals are abuzz with the hustle and bustle of eager travelers checking in for their flights.

For many, the journey is a quest to reunite with loved ones or seek respite from the chilly weather. Tuesday morning, amidst the flurry of activity, checked baggage included an eclectic mix ranging from golf clubs to surfboards, reflecting the diverse destinations and intentions of those taking flight.

"I love to travel, that’s why I’m kind of used to the stress," said Cornelia Simpson, who is traveling to Colorado.

According to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, more people are flying this Thanksgiving than ever before, plus, passengers can look forward to fewer cancellations.

"It’s definitely picking up, I feel like since we got in the building, this line just started," said James Pelletier, who is traveling to California.

During the Thanksgiving travel rush, United Airlines is expected to take to the skies with more than 3,900 flights per day systemwide. An airline spokesperson also adds that remote work is resulting in a longer travel period.

The Thanksgiving travel window, spanning from Tuesday, Nov. 21 through Monday, Nov. 27, is anticipated to peak on Sunday, making it the busiest day for both O'Hare and Midway. During this period, a staggering 1.65 million passengers are projected to pass through those airports, marking a substantial surge in travel compared to previous years.

However, the journey to O'Hare has presented its own set of challenges, with Tuesday morning's heavy rain and ongoing construction on the Kennedy Expressway causing delays and complicating travel plans for some passengers.

"There was so much traffic coming into the airport, so that sucks, should have left like an hour earlier," said Isaac Walker, who is traveling to Portugal.

To alleviate the stress of travel, O'Hare Airport has arranged musical entertainment while an engaging art installation captivates visitors at Terminal 5. However, parking availability at Terminal 5 is limited due to ongoing construction, prompting travelers to consider alternative transportation options.

In light of these challenges, travelers and hosts are encouraged to leverage the convenience and efficiency of the CTA's Blue Line to O'Hare and Orange Line to Midway, which offer frequent and swift train services, ensuring a smoother journey for all.

Meanwhile, on the roads, AAA expects auto travel in Illinois to be the second highest on record — just shy of the record-high in 2005.

The Illinois Tollway expects as many as 8.8 million people to drive the system this holiday.

And of course, the rails will be bustling too. Amtrak is even bringing in ambassadors to help passengers locate their trains faster.

"We’ve put every available rail car we have in service because these are the busiest days of the year. The single busiest day of the year is this coming Sunday, most people need to be back where they started, to be at work, at school, or somewhere else on Monday," said Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesperson. "If you’ve not bought your tickets yet, good luck, you might have to have a lot of flexibility when you come and go. Morning trains tend to be less busy than afternoon trains because that tryptophan in the turkey makes us want to sleep late, but if you can get up and get going, you still might find some morning tickets."

Amtrak's spokesperson urges customers to check the status of their trains and arrive early.

By the end of December, Amtrak will already be selling tickets for next Thanksgiving.