Summer driving: What’s best the route from D.C. to New England?

Robert Thomson
Columnist May 30, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

We read your article in The Post on May 20 about “Hitting the Road.” We go up to visit friends on Cape Cod every year and would like to know the best route to take.

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

We are retired and therefore are able to go any day of the week.

We would like to avoid Interstate 95 into New York, and we usually have taken I-95 to the New Jersey Turnpike and then up the Garden State Parkway and across the Tappan Zee Bridge. We stop somewhere on the way overnight and then go to the Cape the next day. We have stopped in the past in Mystic but would like to find another place to stop overnight that is about halfway to the Cape that is interesting.

Is the route through Pennsylvania that you describe in your article [the summer getaway guide for drivers in the Washington area] the best route for us to take?

Robert Galuppi, Rockville

DG: Travelers have a variety of reasons for picking routes. One is just habit. They go with what they know. That does subtract some anxiety on a long-distance drive. It also adds to the monotony.

Others want to avoid areas of congestion, such as the New Jersey Turnpike work zone between exits 6 and 9, or avoid heavy truck traffic, dodge tolls or just change the scenery.

I often travel to Cape Cod, so I have plenty of suggestions on this. But I also asked readers of the Dr. Gridlock blog for their advice.

The Pennsylvania route, which cuts down on tolls and adds some mountain scenery, goes like this: Take I-95 to Interstate 695, just before Baltimore, to Interstate 83 to York and Harrisburg, Pa., then Interstate 81 to Interstate 78. Options include staying on I-78 across New Jersey toward New York or taking a more northerly course, following Route 22 just before Allentown, Pa., to Route 33 to Interstate 80 across northern New Jersey.

Once on I-80, a driver could pick up the Garden State Parkway north to Interstate 87/287 (New York State Thruway) and the Tappan Zee Bridge.

I wish we could do as Galuppi does and go midweek, but we almost always travel on weekends. So we leave early, obeying drivers’ most frequently submitted tip. But that still puts us in somebody’s heavy traffic, usually around New York City.

We often take what I described as the “classic” route to New York: I-95 to Interstate 295, across the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the New Jersey Turnpike to northern New Jersey approaches to New York (about 227 miles).

We do that for two reasons: The Grid Spouse just hates my driving experiments, and that alternative route through Pennsylvania — although it’s recommended by many travelers — adds miles.

She’ll tolerate a southern alternative: Route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, to Route 301 to State Road 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner Road) to Route 1 and Route 13. From there, drivers can reach I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

Approaching New York City, we listen to WCBS (880 AM) for the traffic reports every 10 minutes. If the George Washington Bridge sounds decent, we’ll take that, although I hate the congestion and rough pavement farther along on the Cross Bronx Expressway. This route often saves us half an hour over continuing north to the Tappan Zee Bridge (I-87) into Westchester County and following I-287 to I-95, into Connecticut.

Drivers such as Galuppi with more flexible travel schedules could give New York City an even wider berth by crossing the Hudson River north of the Tappan Zee, at Newburgh on Interstate 84. If they’re Cape Cod-bound, they’re still going to have to drop far south at some point, so the northern route might not be worthwhile — unless they want to take a side trip up the Taconic Parkway. Then, go east on Interstate 90 to the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts.

For a stopover closer to Cape Cod, I recommend Newport, R.I., south of I-95, or New Bedford, Mass., on I-195 to visit the Whaling Museum. Those aren’t halfway stops. Both are nearer the Cape than Mystic, but I think they’re worth a visit.

Here are some endorsements and additions offered by blog commenters.

mominnva: “I drive home to Massachusetts every summer and for years now have taken the alternative route [through Pennsylvania], completely avoiding downtown NYC. I love this route. Even though it takes more time, it’s such a pleasant and stress-free drive.”

1995hoo: “If you take a Pennsylvania route, I think the easiest way to the Tappan Zee Bridge is to take I-78 into New Jersey and then take I-287 north to the New York Thruway. Then go east to go over the Tappan Zee. I think I-287 is a slightly better bet than the Garden State Parkway, because there is less traffic and no toll plazas to slow you down, bearing in mind that even with E-ZPass, you often have to slow down through the toll plaza.”

1995hoo also suggested a variation on my southern alternative: Instead of going directly from Route 896 to Route 1, turn north on Route 13, just before the Route 1 interchange, then go about two miles north and exit left onto Route 1. That avoids a toll.

josfitz: “I take I-95 through Philadelphia and get off on Route 206 North through Princeton (which is delightful) up to I-287.”

colinhrdng: “We just bite the bullet — I-95 north to the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the NJ Turnpike right onto the GW Bridge, and then hold our breath and do some praying on the Cross Bronx Expressway, and then north on I-95 through Connecticut to Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Some thoughts as to where to stay: Look at Providence, R.I., a state capital but small, right at the junction of I-95/I-195. Many good places to stay, plus some good restaurants.”

pamt1: This commenter recommended a stopover at the Griswold Inn in Essex, Conn., which is north of I-95. “Essex itself is a beautiful colonial village, and just down the road is Old Lyme, home to the Florence Griswold Museum, billed as the home of American Impressionism.”

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