Giving advice about travel conditions, routes and timing for the Thanksgiving getaway is risky business. I can give the same information to two travelers who leave 10 minutes apart from the same point and have very different experiences because of varying traffic conditions.
Yet I plunge ahead anyway. I base my responses to your questions on my experience, advice from experts and comments from many travelers over the years.
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I commute via bus and rail to D.C. I drive only during off peak hours taking Route 267 [Dulles Toll Road] to the George Washington Parkway to Key Bridge.
How will the traffic be Wednesday a.m., as we have a half day and I am considering driving in instead of public transportation. Will traffic be light or typical weekday rush hour?
— Noel Rosengart
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is an odd day for very local travel. Highways such as Interstates 66 and 95 are likely to get more and more crowded as the day goes on. But roads that are pretty much commuter routes — and I’d count the Dulles Toll Road as one of them — may be slightly less crowded because a lot of people have taken the day off. (Some of them are on the highways out of town today.)
Going into D.C., you should be fine. You’ll benefit from the restoration of the second lane on the ramp from the eastbound Toll Road onto the northbound Capital Beltway leading toward the GW Parkway. The restored lane should ease the Beltway/Toll Road bottleneck somewhat.
I wouldn’t linger in D.C. at the end of that half day. You won’t be alone in having a shorter work day Wednesday. Congestion on the main roads and on Metrorail should start to build early in the afternoon, and at that point, commuters will merge with the holiday getaway crowd to create quite a jam.
The Virginia Department of Transportation will lift its road work lane closings from noon Wednesday through noon Monday. (Most highway departments along the East Coast do the same.)
These are some of the getaway questions that came in during the Dr. Gridlock online discussion Monday.
Tolls to N.Y.: “I just purchased an E-ZPass to use on my trip to NY this weekend. Can you estimate the total I will need for tolls — I-95, NJ Turnpike, etc? I only take this trip once a year, so I don't want to load up $100 if that is not necessary.”
If you take the I-95/295-New Jersey Turnpike route, then northbound, you’ll pay tolls at the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore, the toll plaza just north of the Susquehanna River bridge, the I-95 toll plaza in Newark, Del., the New Jersey Turnpike and your entry point into New York City. Southbound, you’ll also encounter the toll plaza for the Delaware Memorial Bridge, but will skip the one north of the Susquehanna River.
I’d count on $52 in tolls for that round trip. (The New Jersey Turnpike and entrance to New York City are the big ones.)
I’m not sure which type of E-ZPass you have, but if you choose to use your credit card for payments, you can avoid the issue of insufficient funds in the account.
Check our holiday getaway guide for some alternatives to the traditional route up I-95.
Thanksgiving travel: “I am driving to Maine and planning to depart around 9 p.m Wednesday (earlier depending on traffic forecast).”
You should be fine regarding traffic in those overnight hours up to Maine. My main concern for you is that you be well-rested before the trip. I tell travelers — because it’s what travelers tell me — that the timing of getaways is more important than the route.
Traveling very late, or traveling on Thanksgiving Day for shorter trips, is better than midday or early evening on Wednesday. But for most of us, when we’re driving overnight, our bodies are telling us that we should be asleep. Rolling down the windows and turning up the radio won’t help much.
In planning a long trip, it’s very important to be aware of the weather forecast. The Capital Weather Gang is talking about two more days of rain and then a very pleasant Thanksgiving Day.
National Airport/Thanksgiving: “My flight out is Wednesday at 3:10, perhaps as close to the peak of the peak as I have ever flown on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I presumed that this would be safe enough since I can take Metro. Was I correct?
“I nearly always end up with tickets out of Dulles or BWI, but this year there was essentially no cost difference (without a horrible connection, a 40 percent on-time rate for the first segment), so I decided to skip the driving/parking nightmare. And are the security lines worse than most days? Do I need to leave more than two hours?”
You should be fine with Metrorail’s Blue and Yellow lines to Reagan National Airport on Wednesday afternoon. There’s no scheduled track work to cause delays through Sunday.
By the way, on Thanksgiving Day, Metrorail will operate on a Sunday schedule. The stations open at 7 a.m. and close at midnight. Parking will be free at all Metro lots and garages. Friday is a regular weekday for Metro.
D.C. to Wintergreen: “Heading to Wintergreen, southwest of Charlottesville on Wednesday. Typically, we go I-66 to I-81 and come back in on I-64. On a normal day, this cuts off 20 minutes of sitting in stop lights in Gainesville and Charlottesville. What time should drivers expect 66 to be jammed? Took the day off just to avoid a seven-hour trip.”
During our Thanksgiving getaway webcast last week, Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, pointed out that “in Northern Virginia, there aren’t a lot of best travel times.”
She directed us to a very helpful listing of what historically have been the worst holiday bottlenecks in Virginia.
This is the listing for the Wednesdays before Thanksgiving:
— Interstate 95 north and south between Occoquan and Springfield during the afternoon and evening hours, and south from Dumfries to Fredericksburg in the mid-morning through evening; In the Richmond area, south from just north of the Interstate 295 junction in the morning, afternoon and evening hours; north from just north of I-295 to Doswell in the late morning to afternoon hours.
— I-95/495 (Capital Beltway) from Van Dorn Street to Telegraph Road in the afternoon hours
— I-495 outer loop south from the Maryland state line to Tysons Corner from mid-morning through the evening; Inner loop north near I-66 during the morning, and from Springfield to the American Legion Bridge in the afternoon through evening
— I-66 east from Nutley Street to just beyond I-495, and from Route 29 to George Mason Drive during the morning; west from D.C. to Route 123 during the late morning to early evening
I-77 north from Castleton Road to I-81 from mid-morning to late evening
— I-64 east just before I-81 in the morning through midday; east in downtown Richmond just prior to the I-95 north interchange; west in downtown Richmond from Route 360 to the I-95 north interchange; east just before the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in the morning and again in the afternoon through evening; east near the I-464 interchange from midday through evening
— I-64 west, scattered heavy congestion from Indian River Road to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in the morning through early evening
— I-264 east and west, scattered heavy congestion through downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth all day
Aside from this historical data, the VDOT report also notes that drivers should expect congestion Wednesday on I-81 north and south in the vicinity of a work zone with a lane closing at Scratch Gravel Road in Marion, Va. VDOT says traffic engineering reports estimate that congestion could begin six miles before the work zone for southbound traffic, and 3.5 miles before the work zone for northbound traffic.