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Holiday Travel Forecast: Trains, planes and automobiles

Travelers line up in Union Station, waiting to board an Amtrak train home.
Travelers line up in Union Station, waiting to board an Amtrak train home. (Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)
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John Townsend
Manager, Public and Government Affairs, AAA Mid-Atlantic
Tuesday, November 24, 2009; 1:00 PM

The annual Thanksgiving travel survey by the auto group AAA found that 978,000 people -- 16.4 percent of the Washington area's population -- planned to travel more than 50 miles over the four-day weekend. Most of them, 824,000, plan to drive, although gas is 60 cents a gallon more expensive than last year, AAA said Friday. That's a 3.6 percent increase over the number who traveled last year during the holiday.

John Townsend, manager of Public and Government Affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic, was online Tuesday, Nov. 24, at 1 p.m. ET to offer tips and advice for your holiday travel by car, plane or by train.

Since 2000 the number of Americans traveling by air during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has dropped 62 percent, according to the AAA 2009 Leisure Travel Index. AAA's national survey predicted that the number of people who will fly to their Thanksgiving destinations will fall by 6.7 percent this year.


John Townsend: Hello everyone. It is good being you. This is the busiest and biggest travel weeks of the year and we're happy to chat with you about your travels and travails.


Washington, D.C.: What can we expect in terms of Friday morning air travel? I have an early international Friday flight out of DCA and am worried about traffic, parking, and lines.

John Townsend: Hello Washington International Flyer. I do think you will have many worries. During the 6-day Thanksgiving travel period, the number of long-distance trips (to and from a ­destination 50 miles or more away) increases by 54 percent. But most of the longer trips and flights will be evenly spread out over the travel period.

In terms of lines for an early international flight, remember that the peak travel times at DCA are typically the early morning hours 5:30 AM to 8 AM, and at mid-day from 11 AM to 1 PM and the late afternoon from 3:30 PM to 5:30 PM.

DCA has added more than 1,400 spaces to meet the high demand for parking. More than 800 new parking spaces have opened in the Daily Garage B/C.

Have a great trip.


Flights: Hey John

Thanks for taking the questions. I have a flight out of DCA tomorrow at 7. Normally I would get to the airport an hour early (I travel monthly for work) but how early do I need to get here tomrorow? I'll also have to find a place to park.


John Townsend:

Hello Flights.

The general rule is two-hours in advance. You are flying out at one of the peak travel periods of the day for the airport. I think it is safe to say that an hour and a half would still work for you. You can find real-time parking information online at www.mwaa.com or by calling 703-417-PARK to speak to a parking attendant.


Vienna, Va.: Hi, I will be traveling to Maryland's Eastern Shore on Sunday morning from Vienna, Va. What is the best way to get to Route 50? Around the Beltway? (if so, which way is better?) Or through the city?


John Townsend:

Hello Vienna. Actually, it depends on the time of Day.

Remember the old bromide: the shortest distance between two places is a straight line. But in this case, I would use the Beltway.

If you decide to come through the city, just take 395 and get off at the Pennsylvania Avenue exit and take 295 over to 50. That way you only hit one red light.

Have a great trip.

Have a great trip.


Maryland: For holiday travelers leaving from N.J. and Md., and headed south to the Carolinas and Florida, which day and time are considered most and second most promising to depart for the South between Fri and Mon, Nov 27, 28, 29 30?

John Townsend: Hello Maryland, on Friday November 27 you will have the highways and the biways to yourself. Here's why. Research by AAA and the the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) here in Washington, D.C. shows for those traveling at least 100 miles away (56 percent of personal vehicle trips), the trips are spread almost equally throughout the Wednesday through Sunday travel period.

Yes Virginia, there's a federal agency for everything. Have a great and safe trip.


Washington, D.C.: On Wednesday, November 25, what are the best and worst times to travel?

John Townsend: Hello Washington, it depends upon how far you are going and the mode of transportation. I assume that you are talking about traveling by car. In that case, Wednesday afternoon will be the crunch time in our area. That's when the kids get out of school and head home on school buses, and workers leave their jobs early for the holiday and shoppers head to the supermarket for last-minute items.

Leave before noon.

By the way, the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) reveals that Thanksgiving Day is actually a heavier long-distance travel day than Wednesday.


Tysons, Va.: Good Afternoon

Since I am in town for the holiday I was thinking of getting out to Tyson's late afternoon for shopping tomorrow. Is traffic going to be good/bad? Is there a better time to head that way?

Thanks for the chats.

John Townsend: Hello Tysons.

You are a brave one. Go and scout out the bargains ahead of the maddening crowds of Black Friday. I will try to hit the stores by 3:00 pm tomorrow before the early rush hour comes.


D.C.: Happy Thanksgiving!

Sorry for the elementary question, but while I travel a lot, I don't ever do it on the holidays! What time should I schedule a pickup from Adams Morgan to get to Dulles in time for a 7 a.m. domestic flight Thanksgiving morning? Will that be one of the more or less congested roads on the holiday?

John Townsend: Hello D.C.

Nothing is elementary when it comes to travel questions. Just in time for the busy Thanksgiving travel period, the Washington Dulles International Airport Christened a new 150-foot wide runway on November 20. But you will time have to get there early for a 7 am flight. I would schedule the pickup for 4:30 to give yourself ample time.

Looks like another sleepless night for you, unless you are an early riser, which I suspect you are.


Anonymous: I'm going to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C. Thanksgiving day. What type of traffic should I expect on the turnpike?

John Townsend:
Anonymous. Your secret is out. You have discovered the sweet spot of Thanksgiving travel - the day itself. The average travelers on the roads that day are those going the shorter distance to Grandma's house.

For those traveling between 50 and 99 miles (44 percent of personal vehicle trips), more travel on Thursday than Wednesday, and more return on Saturday than Sunday.

That spells an open road for you

That spells an open road for you.


Washington, D.C.: I'm driving to Central Virginia on Wednesday. Does it make more sense to leave mid to late afternoon, or wait til 7-8 p.m. if I'm trying to avoid traffic? I'll be driving I-66 to US 29.

John Townsend:
Hello Washington.

You are facing what is called a classic "Hobson's Choice," which means an apparently free choice that offers no real alternative.

Of the three options it is better to go early before the crowd hits the roads or to wait and let every else get out of Dodge.

Our research shows 824,000 Washington area residents - or 13.8 percent of the population - will hit the roads to their destinations this Thanksgiving. And that's only in the Greater Washington area.

You will have a lot of competition for the precious piece of real estate on I-66. Virginia will see a 3 percent increase in those traveling by car this Thanksgiving, with an anticipated 972,000 Virginians also hitting the roadways.

Our research shows 824,000 Washington area residents - or 13.8 percent of the population - will hit the roads to their destinations this Thanksgiving. And that's only in the Greater Washington area.

You will have a lot of competion for the real estate on I-66. Virginia will see a 3 percent increase in those traveling by car this Thanksgiving, with an anticipated 972,000 hitting the roadways.


D.C.: Hi John, thanks for having this chat. I'm going from Burke, Va., to Philly tomorrow morning. I normally leave Wednesday night and just try to enjoy the 5-6 hours it will take to get there. We're planning to leave Burke around 5am. Do you think that will help, or are we stuck with 506 hours no matter what we do?

John Townsend: Hello DC.

The early morning plan works as far as avoiding the rush hour in DC and if you have the wind behind your back you should time it right to avoid rush hour in Philly too.

You will have have to endure the hours.


Visiting D.C. : I am in D.C. visiting from Calfornia but on Thanksgiving Day plan to travel to Ocean City, Md. I've been advised to use 50E. I want to be there by 3 p.m. Any traffic mess I should be aware of around 10 or 11 a.m. Thursday when heading for Ocean City? How about problems returning on Friday morning to D.C.?

Thanks very much if you can help. Happy turkey day!

John Townsend: Hello Visitor:

The Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) anticipates more than 2.7 million vehicles will travel its facilities during this year's six-day Thanksgiving holiday period and urges motorists to plan ahead.

The MDTA anticipates that of that number, more than 440,000 vehicles will cross the Bay Bridge this Thanksgiving weekend.

Wednesday will be the busiest travel day on the old Bridge.

Here's a tip call 1-877-BAYSPAN (229-7726) or visit baybridge.com for 24/7 Bay Bridge traffic information.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm heading down to Richmond tomorrow, planning to leave in the morning. Think the traffic won't be too bad if we leave around 8 a.m.? Thanks.

John Townsend:

Hello Alexandria. I think you will be in good shape once you leave the gravitational pull of Washington


Alexandria, Va.: I've made the Thanksgiving trip from D.C. to Pittsburgh many a time, and came to the conclusion that anyone that leaves on Wednesday is crazy. Get up early Thursday morning and it will be open road the whole way, and you'll be there before 1.

John Townsend:
Hello Alexandria.

That's a good strategy and stratagem. The feint will outfox other travelers going that day.


Alexandria, Va.: I am leaving for the Eastern Shore tonight...Easton, Md. I am waiting until 7 p.m. to leave. Does that make sense?

John Townsend: Hello Alexandria. Tonight. Tonight. Tonight? My friend the world is yours and so are its roads. Enjoy Easton.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, in one of your press releases, you make the observations that air travel over the Thanksgiving holiday is off considerably: "Since 2000, the number of Americans traveling by air during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has dropped an astounding 62 percent."

Is this really true? Last time I flew, the planes were packed! Are there 62 percent fewer flights compared to 2000?


washingtonpost.com: No lonesome roads for Thanksgiving travelers (Post, Nov. 21)

John Townsend: Good question. But the numbers are down nationwide, as we said. The numbers are also down at area airports.

During 2008, nearly 42 million passengers flew from the Washington Dulles International Airport and its sibling, the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

However, the number of persons using the airport actually declined last year. According to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the Reagan National served 18 million passengers in 2008, a 3.5 percent decrease from the record 18.7 million in 2007.

What is more, Dulles International Airport served 23.9 million passengers last year during 2008. That marks a 3.5 percent decrease from the 24.7 million passengers served in 2007.

Why? According to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority:

"Record-high jet fuel prices combined with the overall downturn in the economy created a challenging year for the aviation industry in 2008."

It's a tough time for air passengers who no longer like the flight experience.


Ohio Bound: Hello! We are traveling from Southern Maryland to Dayton, Ohio on Wednesday (planning to leave VERY EARLY in the a.m., probably 4 or 5 a.m.) Any suggested routes? Any areas to avoid due to construction? We usually take 70 to 68 to 70....Columbus is always ugly...THANKS

John Townsend:
Hello Ohio Bound. Dayton is our kind of town. Here's what Valarie our travel agent says: Take 270 to 70 and then 70 to 68. Then take 68 to 79 and next take 79 to 70 going toward Columbus, which is, as you say, always ugly.

This way you avoid getting on the even uglier Pennsylvania Turnpike.

I wish you Godspeed.


Northwest D.C. to Western N.C.: Thanks for answering our questions! I'm traveling late Wednesday from upper NW D.C. to Hickory, N.C. I generally take 66 to 81 but I've never driven from here for the holidays. Should I try 95 instead? I have no idea!

John Townsend: Hello Northwest D.C.

Here's the rule of thumb. I-95 is going to be congested tomorrow, even if you travel late.

If you are an early riser, try leaving at 4:00 in the morning instead. Then take 95 to 85 to 40 right into Hickory and you will beat the traffic. Hope this helps.


Greenbelt, Md.: I am headed home to N.Y. by bus on Thanksgiving day (7-11 a.m. Will there be traffic during this time?

John Townsend: Hello Greenbelt.

Things should be more smoothly for you since you are traveling on the Big Day itself and leaving the driving to others.

Get on the bus.


Washington, D.C.: Best way to get back to D.C. from BWI on Sunday? I don't have a car.

Taxi=expensive + traffic. Super Shuttle= traffic + other passengers will take as long as the B30. The B30 will get stuck in traffic + overcrowded bus.

Should I walk? It might take just as long!

Any way to convince WMATA that running a few more buses to IAD and BWI on heavy travel days is a good idea? Standing and holding on to a pole on the BW parkway is uncomfortable, more importantly, unsafe.

John Townsend: Hello D.C. Surely you have pondered the advantages of the MARC trains, which provide service to and from the BWI Marshall Rail Station. Plus, they have free shuttles that serve the airport terminal.

I wouldn't walk. It takes too long.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi John, thanks for taking questions. I have an 8 a.m. flight out of BWI on Wednesday. Do you think getting there at 6 a.m. is a reasonable amount of time at that hour, or do you think I need to be there earlier? And what will my traffic situation be like on 295 between 5 and 6 a.m.?

John Townsend:

The general rule of thumb at airports is two hours at the busiest airports including BWI. If you get there at 7:00 you should be okay, but don't tell the airport we told you that because the cat will be out of the bag. Pretty soon, everyone will be doing it.

Traffic will be tight and heavy on 295. That would be my only worry tomorrow morning.


New York, N.Y.: Driving from NYC to Gaithersburg on Wednesday departing around 4 p.m.. How bad will traffic be (usually takes 4 hours) and should we avoid the Beltway around 8 p.m.?

John Townsend: Hello New York, New York.

If you delay your arrival on the Beltway by one hour you will be in good shape.


PG County: I live in PG County but work in Rockville and am worried about my commute home tomorrow. I take I-270 to I495 and am thinking it will likely be more of a parking lot than it typically is. Thoughts?

John Townsend:

Hello Prince George's County.

God made vacation days for His children to use to do His will. That's my sermon for today. All kidding aside. Since no works gets done after 1:00 on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, ask your boss to let you to leave early. Otherwise, you will be in traffic purgatory for an interminable amount of hours.

If you don't leave early you will still be there on Thanksgiving Day and you will miss dinner and be condemned to leftovers. Turkey sandwiches lose their appeal after four days.


MARC train: Does not run on weekends. That person wants to get back on Sunday. Amtrak does, but tickets are over 2x the cost of MARC.

John Townsend: You are right. That's the only ticket. The person needs a really good friend willing to pick him up at the airport. Otherwise, he will have to depend upon the kindness of strangers.


Silver Spring, Md.: Flying out of BWI tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. What time would you recommend arriving at the airport?

John Townsend: Silver Spring.

Arriving between 7:30 and 8:00 will put you in good stead.


Washington, D.C.: I'm heading up I-95 to Philadelphia on Thursday morning. Should we be okay if we leave by 7 a.m.? When will traffic start to get bad?

John Townsend: That's sound like a good plan. Stick to it.


Silver Spring, Md.: My wife and I have to work tomorrow and are heading to Long Island for Thanksgiving. Is our best bet to leave late Wed night, aim for 7:30-8 p.m. departure or early Thursday morning? I know the best option is to leave today, but it's just not an option. Thank you for your advice.

John Townsend: The short answer is an eight pm departure. But that puts you on the road late. What if you spent that time sleeping and rising early and heading out early, and I mean early Thursday morning. Say 3:30 before the other travelers jump out of bed at hotels along the roadway.


TSA: So I'm flying out of Reagan at 5 p.m. tomorrow and I'm definately not looking forward to it. How much time should I plan for getting through security?

John Townsend: Dear TSA.

OMG. OMG. Bless you. Be there no later than 3:45 am. OMG.


John Townsend: Thank you so very much for your questions. I am so sorry that it is now time to sign off and I wish I could have responded to all of your questions. Please have a safe holiday. But most of all, remember the real purpose of Thanksgiving. Give thanks and be thankful by having an attitude of gratitude.


Washington, D.C.: Got a 7 a.m. flight out of Dulles.....what time should I be there to get onboard on time?

John Townsend: 5:00 am, and no later than 5:45 to be safe.


D.C.: How late do I need to leave Wednesday night to avoid the traffic going South on 95.

John Townsend: How far are you going? Nine pm should work.


Baltimore, Md.: In response to the answer about taking MARC, it doesn't run on Sundays.

John Townsend: You are right. I am wrong. I owe you an apology.


washingtonpost.com: This concludes today's holiday chat discussion. Thank you for joining.



Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

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