Getting out of New York for Thanksgiving can feel like Sam and Frodo’s quest in The Lord of the Rings. It’s taxing and exhausting, and by the time it’s over, most people are teetering on the edge of insanity. The holiday weekend is one of the year’s busiest periods for domestic travel and can be more taxing on travelers’ psyches than it is on their wallets. But the ease at which someone escapes the city is largely dependent on when (and how) they make their escape.
Here's when you should leave New York City for Thanksgiving, depending on your method of transportation.
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Airlines typically recommend that travelers arrive at the airport two hours early for domestic flights, but that suggestion extends to three hours during the holidays. Traffic around LaGuardia will likely be a mess, so you’re going to want to budget at least an additional 30 minutes if you’re heading there on Wednesday. The A train to JFK will be running on a normal schedule, and NJ Transit will be operating with extra rail service to Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday. Even so, if you're heading to Newark, you want to buy your ticket in advance and leave early in order to best avoid the Penn Station scramble.
As noted above, NJ Transit will be offering additional train service for those looking to get out of town the day before Thanksgiving. Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road will both provide additional service throughout the weekend. As far as when you should leave the city via train, the website Clever Commute has a pretty handy breakdown of peak travel times at Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal. Its data notes that both of the rail hubs saw normal crowds as of noon on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year, but by 1:15pm, conditions became rush hour–esque. So if you want to find a seat on a train and avoid an obnoxiously packed station, your best bet is to leave in the morning on Wednesday rather than the afternoon.
Clever Commute also details that the Port Authority Bus Terminal drew extensive lines as of 3pm on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year, making a last-minute bus ride out of town for Thanksgiving sound like a terrible idea. If you're driving a car, Google has some pretty useful data for making your holiday commute less anxiety-inducing. Its study shows that road traffic starts to get increasingly terrible as early as 4am on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and doesn’t die down until later in the evening. The worst time to leave, Google’s data shows, is at 4pm on Wednesday, and the best time is at 4am on the same day. If you’re able to leave by car on Thanksgiving Day, you have until about 9am before things get truly terrible on the roads.
Stay strong this Thanksgiving, New Yorkers—we've certainly dealt with a lot worse than holiday commutes.