Whether you're returning to the town you grew up in, visiting family across the country, or driving down the street to a friend's house, traveling tends to be a key part of the November and December holidays across the U.S.
In 2023, AAA estimated 55.4 million people would travel 50 miles or more from home during Thanksgiving week, making it the third-highest forecast since the company began tracking holiday travel in 2000. While a vast majority of holiday travelers tend to drive (nearly 89%), about 8% take to the friendly skies, and some, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, even bike or take electric scooters.
The holiday travel experience is so universal that it tends to be a plot point of many beloved holiday movies, from Kris Kringle getting around via reindeer and sleigh in the 1970 stop-motion classic "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" to the McCallisters (sans Kevin) running through the airport to make their flight to Paris in 1990's "Home Alone."
To celebrate Hollywood's take on holiday travel, Airalo researched holiday travel films and curated a list of five of the best. To make the list, each film had to be set during the holiday season, involve significant plot points around traveling, and have at least a 6.5 user rating on IMDb.
In the hopes of encouraging some new viewing this holiday season, you'll notice this list doesn't include some classic Christmas travel scenes, like the aforementioned airport sprint in "Home Alone," the Griswolds' harrowing drive to chop down a tree in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," or Elizabeth's unforgettable trip to her fictitious farm in "Christmas in Connecticut." The movies included are a diverse list in genre, style, and popularity, from a classic John Hughes comedy to a star-studded '40s film, and a Nancy Meyers rom-com to an animated take on a beloved holiday book.
Read on to find a cinematic holiday travel tale that could inspire your next movie night.
- Director: John Hughes
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 72
- Runtime: 93 minutes
- Release date: Nov. 25, 1987
In the 1980s and early '90s, writer and director John Hughes was known for two things: helping to launch the careers of the Brat Pack (particularly Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy) via movies like "Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink," and "The Breakfast Club"; and family-friendly holiday movies a la "Home Alone" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." Of course, those two movies are already likely on your must-watch holiday movie list, but 1987's "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," a Thanksgiving travel tale, is heralded less often.
The comedy stars frequent Hughes collaborator John Candy as Del, a chatty shower curtain ring salesman who becomes an unexpected travel companion to high-strung advertising executive Neal (Steve Martin) after their flight from New York to Chicago gets rerouted to Wichita, Kansas, due to a blizzard. As the title suggests, their misadventures trying to make it home in time for Thanksgiving dinner involve almost every kind of mode of transportation: cabs, trains, rental cars, semitrucks, and even Chicago's L train.
If you want to feel better about your two-hour flight delay, stream "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" on Paramount+, DirecTV, and Pluto TV, or rent it on a wide range of platforms, from Google Play to Redbox. And don't forget to save some tissues for the ending!
- Director: Jon Turteltaub
- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Metascore: 67
- Runtime: 103 minutes
- Release date: April 21, 1995
In between her breakthrough performance in 1994's action thriller "Speed" and the 1996 adaptation of John Grisham's "A Time to Kill," actor Sandra Bullock starred in an often-forgotten Christmas rom-com that centers a Chicago L train token collector named Lucy.
A hopeless romantic, Lucy finds herself pining over businessman Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher) whom she sees on his daily commute. On Christmas Day, he gets mugged on the platform and the assailant pushes him onto the tracks. To save him from an oncoming train, Lucy jumps down onto the tracks and pulls him to safety. But when she accompanies Peter to the hospital, where he's in a coma, she soon finds herself in quite the tangled web and tells his family that she's his fiancée.
The romantic comedy may not involve road trips or air travel for the holidays, but it does capture the unique feeling of being in a crowded city (or train car) during the so-called "most wonderful time of year" and still feeling very lonely. Spoiler alert though, there is a very happy train moment at the end of "While You Were Sleeping," which is available to stream on Disney+ and Paramount+.
- Director: Robert Zemeckis
- IMDb user rating: 6.6
- Metascore: 61
- Runtime: 100 minutes
- Release date: Nov. 10, 2004
While "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" may depict the horrors of holiday travel, on the opposite end of the spectrum is "The Polar Express," an adventure fantasy movie that makes train travel seem magical. The film was groundbreaking in its sole use of performance capture technology, a combination of live action and motion capture computer animation.
"The Polar Express" begins on Christmas Eve sometime in the mid-20th century and centers on the titular train that takes children to the North Pole to see Santa himself, including those who may be skeptical about his existence. The movie, which is based on Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 children's book of the same name, features the voices of Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Peter Scolari, and Nona Gaye, to name a few.
If you want to dream of a holiday train ride filled with dancing waiters serving hot chocolate, you can stream "The Polar Express" on Hulu and Max.
- Director: Nancy Meyers
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Metascore: 52
- Runtime: 136 minutes
- Release date: Dec. 8, 2006
Nancy Meyers is undoubtedly romantic-comedy royalty and when you add the winter holidays into the mix, you get one of the coziest films of the 21st century. Her aptly-titled movie "The Holiday" is a quintessential Christmas rom-com, with some revolutionary travel mixed in.
After experiencing respective heartbreaks 6,000 miles away from one another, strangers Amanda Woods (a high-powered movie trailer producer in Los Angeles played by Cameron Diaz) and Iris Simpkins (a newspaper columnist in London played by Kate Winslet) find themselves searching for some new scenery. They wind up on a home exchange site, pre-Airbnb days, and decide to swap houses for the holidays.
In their new settings—a luxurious home in California for Iris and a quaint cottage in the English countryside for Amanda—they meet some new romantic interests: Amanda connects with Iris' brother, Graham (Jude Law) and Iris crosses paths with Amanda's frequent collaborator, composer Miles (Jack Black). To add to the charm of "The Holiday," Graham has two adorable daughters and Iris meets Amanda's neighbor, who's a Golden Age of Hollywood screenwriter played by real-life film icon Eli Wallach.
If you want to laugh, cry, and perhaps be inspired to travel and trade lives with a stranger this holiday season, check out "The Holiday," available to stream on Fubo, AMC+, Starz, and DirecTV.
- Director: John Ford
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Metascore: 82
- Runtime: 106 minutes
- Release date: Dec. 1, 1948
Oscar-winning director John Ford directed this big-screen adaptation of Peter B. Kyne's 1913 similarly named short novel. The movie follows three men (played by John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, and Harry Carey Jr.) who rob an Arizona bank at Christmastime and unexpectedly become godfathers to a newborn baby while on the run. Though most of us don't travel like the three godfathers today—they make their way via horseback—it is how one would've gotten around during Christmas in the Old West.
"3 Godfathers" may not be your typical holiday movie, but many consider it to be an American Western retelling of the story of the Three Wise Men, a fixture of many Christmas nativity scenes and traditions. To catch the movie this season, you can rent it on many platforms, including AppleTV, YouTube, and Amazon Prime.
Data reporting by Luke Hicks. Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Tim Bruns. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.
This story originally appeared on Airalo and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.