Thanksgiving getaway guide 2013: Advice for long-distance travelers

November 15, 2013

This guide to holiday getaway travel has become a bit of a holiday tradition. Each November, we give readers a familiar main course of routes and travel tips, with some new side dishes — the trouble spots that can shift from year to year.

The travel recipes are enhanced by the feedback we get from motorists who make these journeys. Although they offer helpful adjustments, the basic formula remains unchanged: There are no undiscovered shortcuts, only alternate routes that avoid some notorious bottlenecks or at least break the monotony of too-well-traveled roads.

Thanksgiving eve, from late morning till night, remains the worst time to make a break, but we continue to see heavy getaway traffic on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving as well.

Thanksgiving morning is a better choice than the eve, although you still may encounter knots of traffic as more drivers fall back on these last-minute trips.

If you plan a quick retreat from the relatives, Thanksgiving Friday is good for highway travel, except for the congestion around interchanges near malls. Sunday afternoon and evening are the big periods for returning traffic, and that will continue to be a factor into Monday morning.

Some highlights for this getaway season:

• Drivers heading north on Interstate 95 will find the Maryland House in Aberdeen closed for renovations though the holidays.

• The most difficult travel zone in the D.C. region is the 29-mile corridor of I-95 south of the Capital Beltway, where the 95 Express Lanes are under construction.

• Most highway departments suspend work right around the peak holiday travel times. But if you take extra days off for your travels, you may encounter work zones.

• Maryland’s work-zone speed cameras don’t take a holiday.

• Traffic slows along the New Jersey Turnpike in the center of the state where the turnpike is being widened.

• Some Northeast highway and bridge tolls have risen since last holiday season.

Here are more details about the long-distance routes.

Northeast corridor

Traditional route: I-95 to I-295, across the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the New Jersey Turnpike to northern New Jersey and the approaches to New York (about 227 miles), and perhaps beyond to New England.


(The Washington Post)

Alternative 1 (shown above): Route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, follow Route 301 to Route 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner roads) to Route 1 (toll) or Route 13. From there, drivers can reach I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which connects with the New Jersey Turnpike north to the New York area. This route avoids the Delaware toll plaza and includes some nice Eastern Shore scenery.


(The Washington Post)

Alternative 2 (shown above): Baltimore-Washington Parkway or I-95 to I-695 (Baltimore Beltway) around the west side of Baltimore to I-83 north to I-81 north, just east of Harrisburg, Pa. Follow I-81 north, then take I-78 east into New Jersey. There, drivers can take I-287 to I-80, picking up I-95 for the George Washington Bridge (toll eastbound), or continue north on I-287 to the New York Thruway and take the Tappan Zee Bridge (toll eastbound) across the Hudson River.

Other drivers like to head west before heading northeast. They take I-270 westbound, then pick up Route 15 in Frederick and drive north to the Harrisburg area, where they can link to I-81 and I-78.

These routes avoid Delaware and southern New Jersey.

Issues and options: With the Maryland House temporarily closed for reconstruction, I-95 north drivers will need to go 14 more miles to reach the Chesapeake House in North East, Md.

The Maryland Transportation Authority suggests these less-congested times for Thanksgiving week travel in the I-95 corridor: Tuesday and Wednesday, before 6 a.m. and after 11 p.m.; Thursday through Sunday, before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m.

The highway-speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the Newark, Del., toll plaza vastly improved I-95 travel, but to the east, drivers may encounter a slowdown where Delaware is rebuilding the I-95 interchange with Route 1. All lanes should be open for the holiday period.

Routes 1 and 13 can be congested approaching I-95 and 295.

Drivers who continue on to the New Jersey Turnpike may find themselves amid a slowdown between exits 6 and 9, where the turnpike is being widened to 12 lanes.

Some drivers cringe at mention of the George Washington Bridge, because it leads to the Cross Bronx Expressway, a nightmare at peak periods.

South and west

Traditional routes: I-66 to I-81 and I-64 heading west, or I-95 to points south.


(The Washington Post)

Alternative 1 (shown above): Avoid much of I-81 and part of I-66 by taking Route 29 south from Gainesville, through Culpeper, Charlottesville and on to Lynchburg, where you can take Route 460 west to join I-81 at Roanoke. Picking up I-81 at this point avoids some of the worst pockets of congestion farther north and avoids a lot of the truck traffic that can make the interstate so frightening. Routes 29 and 460 are good four-lane highways, and they roll through some pretty country south of Warrenton.

Gainesville can be a bottleneck on Route 29, site of one of Virginia’s biggest road projects, but the Virginia Department of Transportation has opened a new bridge separating Route 29 drivers from the railroad tracks.

Other towns farther south and west also can be congested. The traffic generated by the annual Thanksgiving Saturday game between the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Virginia Cavaliers will be in Charlottesville this year.


(The Washington Post)

Alternative 2 (shown above): Avoid I-66 by taking I-95 south to Route 3 west in Fredericksburg. Take a left onto Route 20 toward Orange. In Orange, turn left onto Route 15 to Gordonsville. At the traffic circle in Gordonsville, go 180 degrees to Route 231. Turn right at the end of the road, and that will take you to I-64. Hop on it going west, and you will hit I-81.

This route is an option for drivers who have just had it with I-66. It takes them through some of the prettiest parts of Virginia, particularly on Route 231.

It doesn’t get drivers around that bad stretch of I-95 south of Washington. To avoid that area, drivers to the east may prefer Route 301. Drivers to the west may want to use Route 28 to Routes 15 or 17. Route 17 is an option for reaching the Tidewater area.

Issues and options: To accommodate holiday travelers over the Thanksgiving holiday, VDOT will avoid lane closings from 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26, to noon Monday, Dec. 2, throughout the 95 Express Lanes work zone.

Although I-95 south of the District remains problematic at peak periods, a fourth lane has been added in each direction between Route 1 and the Fairfax County Parkway. I-95 is the East Coast’s Main Street, and drivers are likely to encounter holiday traffic from Tuesday morning of Thanksgiving week through the following Monday.

The Virginia Department of Transportation’s guidance for the Thanksgiving getaway warns travelers to expect congestion in these areas: I-95 between Richmond and the Capital Beltway’s Springfield interchange, I-66 in both directions, the I-81/77 interchange near Wytheville, I-81 near Lexington to south of Roanoke, and I-64 near Richmond.

The high-occupancy-vehicle restrictions on I-66, I-95 and I-395 are lifted on Thanksgiving Day but remain in effect on the Wednesday before and the Friday after the holiday.

Traveler information

Whatever direction you are traveling, check on the weather forecast as well as the traffic conditions. Some routes take drivers through mountain ranges, where precipitation can change quickly to sleet and snow.

Virginia, Maryland and most other East Coast states are part of the 511 information system. Motorists can dial 511 from within the states and get up-to-date information on travel conditions.

Delaware isn’t part of that system but does provide traffic updates to travelers who tune their radios to WTMC (1380 AM). Delaware also has a Twitter feed with traffic updates: @DelawareDOT.

In range of New York, check all-news WCBS (880 AM) or WINS (1010 AM) for traffic reports every 10 minutes.

Feedback? Email me at robert.thomson@washpost.com

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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