Tips for Thanksgiving travelers

November 21, 2013

In choosing departure times, drivers should balance their desire to avoid congestion with their ability to stay awake. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Travelers who are about to begin their holiday getaways wrote in this week with these questions and comments on escape plans.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Thanks for your guide to alternative routes and times for car travel during the Thanksgiving holiday season. However, I suggest that you also have a column on travel modes other than the car, such as Amtrak. Every year Amtrak puts on additional Thanksgiving service to accommodate increased traffic. Northeast Corridor Regional service now extends from Boston and Springfield, Mass., to Providence, R.I., New Haven, Conn., New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., Alexandria, Woodbridge, Quantico, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg, Williamsburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Burke Centre in Fairfax County, Manassas, Charlottesville, and Lynchburg, with connecting bus service to Roanoke and Blacksburg.

Passenger train travel is especially attractive to persons traveling individually or as couples (student, business, older travelers), as it usually beats the cost of a car and goes downtown to downtown, avoiding all the traffic and the accompanying stress. Finally, the train is greener and more productive than a car. Travelers can do things on a train that they could never could do if driving: Sleep, daydream, walk around, read, surf the net, write a letter, make a pit stop, or call a relative or friend.
– Dan Peacock, Manassas

DG: Follow this link for Amtrak reservations.

Timing

One traveler hoping to leave from D.C. for New York on Tuesday wrote to ask what time the Tuesday night traffic tends to dissipate. He was thinking of leaving at 9 p.m. but also considered waiting till Wednesday or Thursday morning.

That decision involves striking a personal balance. The Maryland Transportation Authority looked at the history of holiday traffic on its highways, tunnels and bridges, and it says the off-peak times along the Interstate 95 corridor on Tuesday and Wednesday are likely to be before 6 a.m. and after 11 p.m. Then for Thursday through Sunday, the off-peak times are likely to be before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m.

It’s getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between Tuesday night’s getaway traffic and Wednesday night’s. But if you decide to leave very late to avoid heavy traffic, remember that somewhere along the way your body clock will be telling you it’s time to sleep. Balance your desire to avoid traffic around D.C. with the need to stay awake for the entire trip.

The transportation authority also notes that the Maryland House rest area on I-95 remains closed for renovations. Drivers need to go 14 miles farther north to reach the Chesapeake House rest area.

Many of the routes to the Northeast involve toll roads. One trip in the crowded holiday season makes the annual E-ZPass fees seem worthwhile. But look for the “E-ZPass only” lanes, including the ones on the left side of I-95 in Newark, Del. At peak travel times, E-ZPass is virtually useless if you have to line up with everyone paying cash at an “E-ZPass or cash” lane.

Routes

Another traveler wrote to ask about an alternative route to avoid the Capital Beltway from the American Legion Bridge to I-95 and I-95 south to Richmond. The traveler does a lot of driving from Potomac to Florida and said the worst traffic southbound is I-95 south from the Springfield interchange to north of Richmond, where I-295 bypass starts.

That route would be tough enough with the heavy volume of East Coast traffic, but there’s also the 29-mile work zone on I-95 south of Springfield for the 95 Express Lanes. The Virginia Department of Transportation says it will avoid lane closings in that work zone from 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to noon Monday, Dec. 2.

But is there a viable alternative? A southbound driver crossing the Legion Bridge could continue on the Beltway to I-66 West. Then in Centreville, take Route 28 to Route 17 and rejoin I-95 in the Fredericksburg area. Starting in Potomac, that’s about 80 miles. Potomac to Fredericksburg via the Beltway and I-95 is about 61 miles.

I think the drivers who have recommended that western swing as an alternative are the ones who would do anything to avoid I-95 in Northern Virginia. (As opposed to the drivers who would do anything to avoid I-66.)

VDOT does its own traffic calculations based on recent years of holiday travel statewide and finds that the least amount of interstate congestion during the five-day Thanksgiving travel period is likely to occur before noon Wednesday. The heaviest congestion is likely to occur on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in the afternoon and evening, with some congestion on Saturday evening as well.

Radio traffic

Ron Sheinson of Silver Spring said my Thanksgiving travel guide on Sunday noted that drivers approaching New York could tune to WCBS (880 AM) or WINS (1010 AM) for traffic reports every 10 minutes, but that I didn’t say exactly when the reports are. The WCBS reports are on the 8s, and the WINS reports are on the 1s.

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.

Airport screening

Lisa Farbstein, former spokeswoman for Metro and now with the Transportation Security Administration, sent along a list of tips for getting through the airport security lines. Here are some I think are particularly relevant at holiday time.

Gifts. While wrapped gifts are allowed, security officers may need to unwrap a gift to resolve an alarm. TSA recommends passengers wrap gifts after their flight or ship them ahead of time to avoid the possibility of having to open them during the screening process. Small snow globes are allowed in carry-on luggage when packed in a passenger’s plastic 3-1-1 bag.

Food. Food items such as pies and cakes are permitted, but may require further inspection. If travelers are not sure if a food item is considered a liquid or gel, it is best to pack the item in checked baggage or ship it to a destination in advance. For more detailed information, visit: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/traveling-food-or-gifts

Prohibited items. Travelers can use the “Can I bring my…” app on www.TSA.gov or www.TSA.gov/mobile to check what items are allowed or not allowed in carry-on and checked luggage.

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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