Thanksgiving getaway guide: Advice for long-distance travel from D.C.

Robert Thomson
Columnist November 10, 2012

The ideal Thanksgiving travel experience is a trip from your living room to your dining room. Everything else is a hassle. It’s just a question of how much of a hassle it will be.

The D.C. area travelers who contribute to these annual getaway guides say there are no undiscovered shortcuts, only alternative routes that avoid some notorious bottlenecks or at least break the monotony of a too-well-traveled road.

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

Thanksgiving eve, from late morning till night, remains the worst time to make a break for Grandma’s house, but travelers have spread out their long-distance getaway times, with many leaving Tuesday evening. The morning of Thanksgiving Day is a better choice, though you still may encounter knots of traffic as more drivers fall back on such last-minute trips.

If you plan a quick retreat from the relatives, 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, which will stretch into Monday morning.

Some highlights for this year: If you have to swing around the Capital Beltway at a peak travel time, your trips could be a bit better this holiday season. Consider using the west side and getting in the 495 Express Lanes, scheduled to open next weekend. You’ll need an E-ZPass to pay the variable toll. If the regular lanes are jammed, it may be worth it.

No new shortcuts, but tips to be grateful for.

But Virginia drivers heading north also can catch a break on the east side of the Beltway, because the Wilson Bridge project eliminated the bottleneck near Telegraph Road.

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

Those leaving the driving to others should note that the D.C. intercity bus terminal has moved into the Union Station garage. If you’re taking Metro to the bus, get off at Union Station rather than NoMa-Gallaudet U station.

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 on to New England.

Alternative 1: 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.

Alternative 2: 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 and cross the Hudson River at the Tappan Zee Bridge. Or they can take the New Jersey Turnpike north to the George Washington Bridge, or stay on I-78 east to reach the Holland Tunnel. 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. This route avoids Delaware and southern New Jersey.

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

The highway-speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the Newark, Del., toll plaza have vastly improved I-95 travel. The lanes — two in each direction — start on the left side of I-95 about a quarter-mile before the toll plaza. Beyond them, drivers may encounter a new slowdown where Delaware is rebuilding the I-95 interchange with Route 1, but all lanes should be open for the holiday period.

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.

This zone will remind some drivers of the work area for the 495 Express Lanes over the past several years. The new lanes are being built on the outer edges of the existing lanes. But in many stretches, there are no shoulders, lanes shift and narrow, pavement markings are altered and the roadway is rough. The construction zone speed limit is 55 mph. In peak periods, traffic moves slowly.

South and west

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

Alternative 1: 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, and there is a big construction project around the railroad tracks. Other towns along the way 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 Blacksburg this year.

Alternative 2: 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: Northern Virginia is the home of roadwork mega-projects, but highway departments along the East Coast, including Virginia’s, suspend regular road work between midday Wednesday and Monday for Thanksgiving traffic.

While 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 says Thanksgiving getaway travelers should expect to encounter 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 and many other East Coast states, including Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, 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.

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