The popular Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, attended by more than 3 million people and watched by 50 million on television, was scheduled to kick off in New York City.
This year, the giant balloons were to welcome Elf on a Shelf and Papa Smurf. A new version of Hello Kitty was to be included while Buzz Lightyear, Sailor Mickey Mouse and the Pillsbury Doughboy remained in the lineup. Real life stars were to include Carly Rae Jepsen and Rachel Crow of "The X Factor."
Other cities planned to have showy marching bands, cartoon character balloons, and musical extravaganzas, as well. Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit were among the big cities hosting parades.
Among the scheduled highlights were a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spectacular in Chicago; Phillies star Ryan Howard and Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler in Philadelphia, and a group of 2012 U.S. Olympic champions in Detroit.
The holiday came as portions of the Northeast still were reeling from Superstorm Sandy's havoc, and volunteers planned to serve thousands of turkey dinners to people it left homeless or struggling.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said his office would coordinate the distribution of 26,500 meals at 30 sites in neighborhoods affected by Sandy, and other organizations also were pitching in.
The Long Beach Surf Association and a charity called Surf for All were sponsoring a Thanksgiving dinner in the Long Island community of Long Beach.
U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, whose New York district includes the heavily battered Rockaways neighborhoods, said he planned to stop by Thanksgiving dinners at three churches and a school.
"They are still giving thanks," Meeks said of his constituents. "They are thankful that they're alive and thankful to the people who are coming to help them."
Some used social media to coordinate Thanksgiving volunteering. Elle Aichele, of Toms River, N.J., started a Facebook page called Hurricane Sandy Thanksgiving Adopt a Family for Dinner.
"Please host a family that needs something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving!" she wrote. "I have been thinking about what I can do to help and this is it!"
For some travelers, the need to stretch their money dictated how they were to arrive at their destinations.
Ashlee Denaro, 35, of Irvine, Calif., was at Los Angeles International Airport Wednesday with her three children. The divorced woman had flown to Salt Lake City to pick up the children from her ex-spouse for a flight back to Southern California.
To economize, Denaro, a physical therapist, flew to Phoenix, changed planes for Salt Lake City, then returned to LAX instead of landing at her local Orange County airport. She then planned to drive an hour to Irvine.
The circuitous route saved her $500 on plane fare.
A Pennsylvania Turnpike service plaza just outside Pittsburgh was packed early Wednesday afternoon, with occasional lines of cars waiting for gas.
Linda Lapp-Stout, 64, was traveling from Cleveland to see family in Parkesburg, between Philadelphia and Lancaster. Lapp-Stout, who has driven a school bus for 32 years, said she was thankful for the holiday break and the warm weather, but worried about the economy.
"It's hard to even afford gas," she said.
Landscape designer Anne Murphy, of Gorham, Maine, was waiting for an Amtrak train at Boston's South Station as she and her husband, Ken, headed for Thanksgiving dinner in Gibbsboro, N.J. She said she travels smarter by searching for deals online, using cheaper airports further away from home and packing fewer bags to avoid baggage fees.
"I think we probably travel a little bit less because of costs, but we've definitely traveled more public transportation in order to save on gas," said Murphy, 56.