December getaways carry special challenges for D.C. area travelers

More than one in four Americans are going to take a road trip this holiday season, according to the annual December forecast from AAA. But if you know that, what do you know about planning your trip?

The getaway traffic patterns are very different from those at Thanksgiving. In December, people have different priorities and more flexibility about departure times.

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. View Archive

“The travel’s spread out, so it’s not as in a confined time frame like Thanksgiving or Memorial Day,” said Kelly Melhem, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates toll roads, bridges and tunnels through which many vacationers will pass.

Here are some tips for planning your adventures.

Volume

The December holidays don’t have the same intense getaway peaks as Thanksgiving, but there still will be plenty of travelers on the roads, in airport parking areas and in train and bus depots.

“The year-end holiday season remains the least volatile of all travel holidays as Americans will not let economic conditions or high gas prices dictate if they go home for the holidays or kick off the New Year with a vacation,” AAA President and chief executive Robert Darbelnet said in announcing the holiday travel forecast.

The number of air travelers is likely to increase, but so is the number of drivers, and nine out of 10 getaways nationwide are made in cars. AAA estimates the national average price of gasoline will drop slowly through the end of the year and average $3.20 to $3.40 per gallon by New Year’s Day. Average gas prices dropped about 50 cents a gallon from September through early December, AAA said, but they remain at record highs for this time of year.

Timing

Christmas and New Year’s Day are on Tuesdays this year, so count on some people creating four-day weekends. But that doesn’t mean we’ll re-create the intensity of the Thanksgiving getaway scene. For example, many young families will spend Christmas Day at home before heading off on trips later in the week.

While Friday may not be the equivalent of Thanksgiving eve, the days right before Christmas offer special travel challenges, because they blend last-minute shoppers, regular commuters and people heading out of town. “That makes for a very uncomfortable mix on our roads,” said Mahlon G. “Lon” Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic. “They don’t handle one function very well, much less a mix of all three.”

David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, noted an extra difficulty factor for travelers: They will be sharing the road with drivers coming from holiday parties. “The bigger concern over holidays like this tends to be impaired driving crashes,” he said.

Many drivers heading south are interested in the rules for Virginia’s High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. Normal HOV rules will be in effect Dec. 24 and Dec. 31, the Virginia Department of Transportation said.

These restrictions are lifted on Interstates 95, 395 and 66 on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day before returning the day after each holiday.

On Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, the I-95/I-395 reversible lanes will be southbound until midnight, then will switch to northbound by 2 o’clock the following morning.

For those heading up I-95, remember that the Maryland House service center in Aberdeen is closed for renovations, but the Chesapeake House 14 miles beyond, in North East, Md., remains open.

Planning

Everyone we consulted urged travelers to take some time out of their busy schedules to prepare their vehicles and check the weather forecast — not only for your departure point but also for your destination.

“The weather drives the issues you tend to have this time of the year,” Buck said.

During Dr. Gridlock’s online discussion with travelers Monday, a driver planning a post-Christmas trip from Boston to Richmond asked whether it was best to stick with I-95, the East Coast Main Street, or swing west to I-81 and I-64.

Avoiding I-95 is a preoccupation with holiday drivers, but they should keep in mind that what falls as rain on I-95 may come down as sleet or snow along those higher inland routes. (Dr. Gridlock recommended I-95 for the post-Christmas trip.)

Patience

It’s good to have a bailout route in mind, but there are no undiscovered shortcuts among the holiday routes leading away from the D.C. region. When traffic volumes are so high, “it takes very little to upset the delicate traffic balance that we have,” Buck said. “It can be as simple as a disabled vehicle on the side of the road or a police stop.”

Road resources

Travelers in Maryland, Virginia and many other states along the getaway routes can get information on traffic conditions by dialing 511 within the state and using the voice menus to target their interests. Please let a passenger do this or get off the road. The voice-recognition systems can be less than perfect when there’s highway noise in the background. Don’t concentrate so intensely on making yourself understood that you lose focus on the road.

Travelers also can check these services on the Web before leaving. Maryland information is at www.md511.org. For Virginia, it’s www.511virginia.org.

Buses

Travelers who use intercity buses should note that the terminal has moved into the garage at Union Station. If you’re taking Metrorail to the buses, get off at the Union Station stop rather than at NoMa-Gallaudet U.

Airports

Air travelers are likely to encounter crowded conditions in the long-term parking areas at Reagan National, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports during Christmas week. Before leaving home, check the airport Web sites for parking availability at National and Dulles. For BWI, it’s best to check the airport’s Twitter feed, @BWI_Airport, for updates.

Arrive at the airport extra early to get through the security line. This is the season when many of your fellow passengers will be inexperienced travelers, and they will be carrying gifts that have to go through inspections.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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