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Holiday Travel: America hits the roads

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John Townsend
Manager, Public and Government Affairs, AAA Mid-Atlantic
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; 12:00 PM

U.S. travel during the Christmas and New Year holiday weekends will rise 3.8 percent from last year, the first gain in three years and the biggest increase for any holiday in 2009, AAA said Wednesday.

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In a prepared statement AAA stated that 87.7 million travelers, or 28 percent of the population, will travel 50 miles or more away from home this year. That is up from 84.5 million a year earlier.

John Townsend, manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, was online Wednesday, Dec. 23, at Noon ET to take your questions about what to expect for your holiday travel.

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John Townsend: Hello everyone, it took us days to do it. Oh my aching back! We got the white Christmas we've longed for. After digging ourselves out of the massive snow banks we are ready to hit the roads, the rails and the skies for that massive holiday getaway. Let's chat about your getaway.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi, I hope you can help me. We're supposed to fly from Boston to southern Minnesota on Christmas morning, right during the middle of and into the middle of what's forecast as a very big storm. What are our options at this point vis-a-vis the airline? Is it a good idea to call and see if we can change to a later date, or is the airline unlikely to entertain that possibility until our flight is cancelled or we're stuck somewhere? If we're not going to fly on Christmas Day, I'd like to know in advance and salvage a little holiday spirit. How to proceed?! Thanks.

John Townsend: Hello Boston,

As you are aware, the National Weather Service is forecasting wintry weather across much of the Central United States. Widespread snow is expected across the Central and Northern Plains to the Mississippi River through Thursday. Heavy snow is possible from eastern Colorado through the Dakotas into Minnesota. That's the system you are flying into.

Your options are few given the service delays and disruptions caused by the East Coast snowstorm. But if I were you, I would call the airline and see if you can hop onto an earlier flight and get out of Dodge to Southern Minnesota before the storm hits. If you booked your flight through a travel agent, have the agent call the airline too.

I wish you well and Godspeed.

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Cleveland Park, D.C.: Hi Travel Crew,

I'm flying out of DCA tomorrow at 8 am on US Air, connecting through Charlotte on my way to Tennessee for the holidays. When I checked online in just now it said there's a travel advisory in effect for both DCA and CLT. Are things still backed up from the storm this weekend? Should I expect any unusual delays or problems (other than those I'd normally expect when flying on Christmas Eve, I mean)?

Thanks!

John Townsend:

Hello Cleveland Park, the major airlines, including US Air, are still working to recover from the service and schedule disruptions caused by the massive snowstorm that stranded thousands of air passengers and thwarted the holiday schedule. They are adding flights and they are waiving change fees to allow ticketed passengers to switch to a later flight without having to fork over the hefty change fees. US Air is letting you know in advance that you can expect some delays along the way. But given that you are flying to Charlotte it is unlikely weather will be your nemesis this time around. It will be the masses at the ticket counters. Watch your elbow room and your manners. Be polite and be patient. Enjoy the company and Merry Christmas.

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Hartford, Conn: Let's cut straight to the chase: will O'Hare be open tomorrow? If not, and I get stuck trying to drive, does that make me John Candy or Steve Martin?

John Townsend: My heart goes out to you Hartford:

The so-called "once in a quarter century storm" is moving into the Central and Northern Plains with ferocity and strength we haven't seen in a while, It will dump 10 to 20 inches of snow in some places and freezing rain in others.

Due to weather conditions, namely snow and ice, there is a traffic management program in effect for air traffic and passengers arriving at Chicago O'Hare. This is causing some arriving flight to be delayed an average of 2 hours and four minutes.

Compounding matters, arrival traffic, as it is called, is also experiencing airborne delays of 15 minutes or less. To check the status of your flight, go to the FAA

Flight Delay Information - Air Traffic Control System Command Center website at http://www.fly.faa.gov/flyfaa/usmap.jsp

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, I have a 1:30 p.m. flight tomorrow from DCA to Chicago on American. They are allowing people flying to the Midwest to rebook flights to try and avoid the storm there. (Details on their Web site.) I'm trying to balance avoiding any leftover mayhem at the D.C. airports with avoiding the storm in Chicago. Any thoughts on whether I should try to rebook for this evening, or if I'm better off flying tomorrow? Thanks.

John Townsend: Hello Washington,

At first glance, it appears you are facing what is called in life the "Hobson's Choice." In other words, this is the "apparently free choice that offers no real alternative."

But you really do have a real alternative. Take the earlier flight and avoid getting caught in the storm.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I have family driving up from Greensboro -- due to car trouble they have delayed their departure from today to tomorrow -- how much traffic nightmares are they likely to hit tomorrow?

John Townsend: Hello Gaithersburg

Keep in mind tomorrow is Christmas eve and all of the roads in and out of Washington will be jammed with holiday traveler and last minute Christmas shoppers.

Here is the tale of the tape. The vast majority of area residents, 2.2 million Washingtonians, who plan to travel this holiday season will do so by automobile and many of them will also be hitting the road tomorrow. So expect a traffic nightmare. Call it the Nightmare Before Christmas, as it were. That's exactly what it will be.

I pray and hope that your family will have a safe trip from Greensboro and that their family car will hold up.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi,

I'm taking an early (7 a.m.) Amtrak train tomorrow to N.J. I'm a little worried about delays, especially with with the power failure in Penn Station right now. Should I resign myself to delays tomorrow?

Thanks!

John Townsend: Merry Christmas Boston,

Talk about a sense of bad timing. Amtrak trains heading in and out of New York City have been halted by what are described as "power problems."

As you are aware, the situation has stranded passengers and frustrated holiday travel plans. Officials say "there is enough electricity to power the lights and heat on the trains, but not the engines."

It is our hope the situation will be resolved before you take your train in the morning. You can check the status of travel disruptions on Amtrak at http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=Page&pagename=am%2FLayout&cid=1237608335997

By the way, travelers can check Amtrak's timetable at: http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer/Page/1237405732505/1237405732505

Hope this helps.

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washingtonpost.com: Amtrak Timetable

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Northern Virginia: We drive from Fairfax County to have Christmas dinner in Columbia, Md., often coming back at midnight. If the weather is cooperative, traffic is fine, not terribly light on Christmas, but nothing like rush hour. Do you think we will be spared ice and slippery roads, or should we re-think our plan this year?

John Townsend: Hello Northern Virginia,

Before heading over to Columbia, check the weather report first. This might sound like a contradiction in terms, but keep your eyes peeled for black ice on the roads. Keep in mind, black ice is almost invisible to the naked eye.

Black ice commonly forms in tunnels, on overpasses and in highly shaded, rural areas.

Be especially cautious when driving your car into shaded areas, and slow your vehicle down during your approach.

If you are approaching a patch of ice, brake during your approach. Applying pressure to your brakes while on ice will only throw you into a skid.

Enjoy your Christmas dinner in Columbia and enjoy the holidays.

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Pittsburgh-bound: I'm a little confused about the weather forecast for this storm. I am planning on heading to Pittsburgh tomorrow morning (yes, I know the traffic will be bad, but better than Friday's weather). I was hoping to return Saturday day to try to avoid the Sunday return traffic. Will the storm have moved through by then, or will we be facing snow all weekend?

John Townsend: Hello Pittsburgh-Bound:

Keep your travel plans for you have planned well if you are leaving out tomorrow morning, which is the eve of Christmas. The five day forecast for Pittsburgh calls for smooth sailing on Christmas eve during the daytime hours. However, there is a change of freezing rain after midnight. As to Christmas Day, rain is likely with a change of freezing rain in the morning. Yes, you will face the possibility of snow in Pittsburgh this weekend. Rain and snow showers are likely Friday night and Saturday. There's a 40 percent chance of snow showers on Sunday night and Monday.

Have a safe trip.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm sure you'll get this sort of question a lot -- I have a 7 a.m. flight out of DCA on Christmas morning. How early do I have to get to the airport? I know it's not worth getting there too early because they won't be open. Thanks!

John Townsend: Hello Washington:

As the massive snowstorm this past weekend proved, , travelers are at risk of weather delays and other unforeseen mishaps. Given the fact that the storm caused so many delays, I would show up two hours ahead of my flight. Flight delays are a fact of life for travelers. Come to the airport prepared for a delayed flight.

Here are some other tips. Printing out your boarding pass at home from the airline's Web site and using curbside check-in and ticket kiosks can save time when you are in hurry to get to your flight.

For added measure, given all that has gone on at DCA this week be sure to program numbers for your airline, hotel, car rental company, or your travel agent into your cell phone. In case you need to change your flight, you can call the airline directly rather than waiting in line at the ticket counter.

Finally, make sure you have the phone number for whoever is waiting for you at the airport so you can keep them posted about your situation.

Have a great flight.

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Bethesda, Md.: Help! I'm have no experience driving in winter conditions. I've been asked to drive to NJ/PA leaving Christmas Eve, coming home on Sunday. How is the weather going to be? Should I just say no? I'm a little nervous about my first time driving the highway on snow and ice being one of the busiest times of year.

John Townsend:

Hello Bethesda. Hate to disappoint you. Looks like you can't use the weather as your reason for not taking the trip. The good old forecast is calling for mostly sunny conditions on Christmas eve and a chance of rain in the afternoon on Christmas Day. For your return trip the weather should be partly sunny with highs in the upper 30s.

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Downtown D.C.: I'm due to fly out of National at 6:15 this evening. I have no luggage to check, on small carry-on, and have already checked in and have my boarding pass in hand. (Or purse, at this point.) I'm not driving, so don't need to think about parking and shuttles. How early do I need to get to the airport?

John Townsend: Hello Downtown DC

You are a wise and savvy traveler. You have planned well. That is to your advantage. Since you are not checking baggage, there is really no need to arrive at National two hours or 90 minutes before your departure. Try to arrive least 60 minutes prior to their scheduled departure in case a monkey wrench gets tossed about.

Have a great trip.

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Heading south: Hello -- thanks for doing this chat today! You'll probably get a lot of these, but we are driving down to Florida. We were originally going to leave early Christmas morning but are not contemplating leaving Christmas Eve night (say after 5:00) due to the weather. Any advice on which may be better in terms of traffic? We have traveled on Christmas Day before I have found it to be relatively light, but I have no experience with Christmas Eve. Thanks!

John Townsend: Hello Heading South.

So you are driving down to Florida, the big question do you really want to spend Christmas Day in the car? This is a trip of over 900 miles and it takes upward of 15 hours even on Christmas Day.

I would stick with your game plan. It's worked for you on Christmas past and it will work well for you this time around. Merry Christmas.

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Hartford, Conn.: Let's cut straight to the chase: will O'Hare be open tomorrow? If not, and I get stuck trying to drive, does that make me John Candy or Steve Martin?

John Townsend: My heart goes out to you Hartford:

The so-called "once in a quarter century storm" is moving into the Central and Northern Plains with ferocity and strength we haven't seen in a while, It will dump 10 to 20 inches of snow in some places and freezing rain in others.

Due to weather conditions, namely snow and ice, there is a traffic management program in effect for air traffic and passengers arriving at Chicago O'Hare. This is causing some arriving flight to be delayed an average of 2 hours and four minutes.

Arrival traffic is experiencing airborne delays of 15 minutes or less. To check the status of your flight, go to the FAA

Flight Delay Information - Air Traffic Control System Command Center website at http://www.fly.faa.gov/flyfaa/usmap.jsp

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there any good time for me to drive from Alexandria to Baltimore tomorrow afternoon? My family is celebrating Xmas at 3 p.m. Normally, I'd leave my house at 1:45 to arrive at 3, but with the holiday travelers, people leaving work after a half-day, and snow, I fear I'm destined to sit in traffic. Thoughts?

John Townsend: Hello Alexandria. If you are leaving out in Christmas eve you can expect some delays and a lot of congestion on the two Beltways and on everything in between. Keep in mind, you will have plenty of company no matter when you head out.

For example, 2.2 million Washingtonians will be traveling by vehicles during the holiday season. That's 37.1 percent of the local population who will travel fifty miles or more from home by automobile.

What is more, one third of all Virginians, or 2.6 million, will be jumping into their cars, trucks, mini vans and the like to head to holiday gatherings during the period from Wednesday, December 23 to Sunday, January 3rd.

On top of that, over 1.8 million Marylanders will take to the roads. The majority of residents traveling, 87 percent, will drive to their holiday destination.

So pack some good music to listen to, hopefully Christmas carols to put you in the mood and put some starch in your spine for the stopping and going.

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Bad weather ahead?: I have decided to stay put for Xmas. Family lives in NW Pennsylvania. I'd be driving tomorrow night, and driving back to D.C. Saturday-Sunday.

Should I feel guilty about staying in D.C. and not going home for Xmas this year? Or is a drive of that length a fool's errand this week?

John Townsend:

Hello Bad Weather. There is nothing worse in this whole wide world than being miserable and feeling guilty on Christmas Day.

However, if the weather is bad you are not responsible for that. The forecast calls for icy conditions in that part of the state. In the parlance of yesterday, they called these events "acts of God." So there's no need to feel blameworthy.

Before heading out, check the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center athttp://www.spc.noaa.gov/

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D.C.: We're planning to drive from D.C. to Richmond on Christmas morning. Will the weather or traffic change our plans?

John Townsend: Hello D.C.

Just heard from Lon Anderson who is the well-known spokesman for AAA for several years standing. He is currently driving up to DC from DC and he called to say I-95 is already jammed northbound and southbound. It is likely to continue that way until early Christmas morning.

There are still alternatives to I-95 South in Northern Virginia. If you have the stomach for it, take Route 301. Head south on US 301 thru Waldorf to LaPlata. There's a traffic light on every corner, or so it seems.

Once you reach LaPlata continue south on US 301, over the Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge (toll) into Virginia and on to Bowling Green. (45 miles) From Bowling Green, continue south on VA 207 to I-95 exit 104 (that leg of the trip is 11 miles). Pick up I-95 South and then head into Richmond.

Have a Merry Christmas and a pleasant drive.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi:

I have a flight tomorrow from Logan to BWI at 6 in the morning. Should I be expecting delays; so far the airline hasn't notified me of any?

Thanks and happy holidays.

John Townsend: Hello Boston. You should be in good stead.

At this juncture, general Arrival/Departure delays at Logan are running 15 minutes or less.

According to the FAA, "Boston Logan BOS Airport is currently not experiencing any delays more than 15 mins." I know you like the sound of that.

Have a safe trip and Merry Christmas.

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Flying into DCA out of SYR: Should there be any issues with flying into DCA tomorrow? My mom is flying in from SYR...

John Townsend: Hello Flying Into DCA:

Your mother is in good shape. At this time there are no reports of flight delays for departures or arrivals at the Syracuse Hancock (SYR) airport. Enjoy the holidays and honor your mother by picking her up on time.

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NYC bound: Do you know if the power problems are affecting the commuter rails that operate out of Penn Station in N.Y.? Specifically I am hoping to take a Long Island Railroad train east out of the city around 9:30 tonight... Thanks.

John Townsend: Hello NYC bound.

Keep your fingers crossed. Passengers on the Long Island Railroad experienced significant delays on Sunday and Monday, as the blizzard of 2009 dumped a record amount of snow on Long Island.

Before heading out sign up for the railroad's email alert system at www.mymtaalerts.com.

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New to D.C.: Here are my options for my drive from DC to Atlanta:

1) Leave Friday at 3 a.m. (I prefer this but am worried about the ice pellets)

2) Leave Thursday at 4:30 p.m.

3) Leave Thursday at 7:00 a.m.

Which one makes the most sense? Thanks!

John Townsend: New To DC. Take option one. That's a distance of about 638 miles and it should take 10 and a half hours. Have a safe trip and watch out for the ice pellets.

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Holiday travel: Seems this year's holiday travel plans are kerfuffled across the Land. Plans don't always work out. Take a deep breath, have book/game/crossword puzzle with you, a smile and good attitude, and you will have great "horror" story to tell in years to come. Am reminded of scene in movie "Devil Wears Prada" where boss wants to fly back to NY from Florida where hurricane is raging and berates her assistant for not getting her out because of a little rain. Happy holidays folks.

John Townsend: Great advise Holiday Travel.

You have said it much better than we can.

Thanks for sharing and have a happy holiday.

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Boston to Minnesota again: Thank you for your advice and good wishes!

John Townsend: Thank you.

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Best Day?: What do you think the best travel day to head from the Baltimore area west over the mountains in Maryland and West Virginia. What about the return trip? Small car, no 4- wheel drive. Thanks.

John Townsend: Best Day. Once I share this with you, everyone else will follow suit. Given the distance you are going, I would head out on Christmas Day and return to the area on the Tuesday after Christmas, the 29th.

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Maryland: For people coming from Greensboro. The may want to consider going 29 to 66 to the Beltway and 270 or avoid the major roads altogether by going 29 15 through Leesburg and take White's Ferry and 28 through Poolsville to Maryland. 29 moves fast although it has stop light when going through small towns. Look at a map and think about it.

John Townsend: Hello Maryland. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate the helping hand and the good driving tips.

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Washington, D.C;: I was reading about the weather delays at JFK that resulted in passengers missing cruise departures.

My husband and I are planning our first cruise next year and I am writing to ask is there any way we can arrange things so that we would receive a refund if, for reasons beyond our control, we are unable to meet the departure date.

John Townsend: Hello Washington.

Travel insurance will help ease some concerns that you might have. Travel insurance costs can be relatively inexpensive, but they're well worth the investment.

However, we advise travelers against buying travel insurance from a cruise line. Cruise policies may carry less coverage, and benefits may stop between 24 and 72 hours before departure.

We also advise against those policies purchased through the tour operator. If the company goes out of business, chances are good your policy will be worthless.

AAA recommends your policy cover you from date of departure to the end of your trip.

Both travel insurance and using a credit card for payment can provide additional financial protection for travelers. Almost all travel insurance policies have exclusions for war, but many travelers will find the policies worth purchasing to protect against illnesses, accidents, airline problems or other events that can impact their trips.

I hope this helps. Have a great trip.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you have any advice on picking a discount bus line for travel to New York City next week? We're concerned about driver qualifications and safety of the bus itself.

John Townsend: Hello Fairfax, funny you should ask. In late August, Andrea Sachs a new travel writer at the Washington Post explored the options in an article titled "Back on the Bus."

It is one of the best stories I've seen on picking discount bus trip to New York. It has plenty of tips. The Post website also has a video you can watch. Here's the link to the wonder of it all. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/27/AR2009082703374.html

Enjoy the trip. Merry Christmas.

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A Broader Transportation Question. . .: Thank you for taking questions today. I have a broader question about transportation and AAA's role.

One of the key ways to improve traffic flow is to encourage alternative transportation -- walking, biking, using public transportation and living closer to where we work. It often seems that AAA is a strong proponent of building more roads while ignoring alternative transportation. Since most of us will not give up our cars, just use them more efficiently, what is AAA doing to promote alternative transportation and smart land use planning?

John Townsend: Hello Broader. We applaud and support those efforts. We also encourage and promote alternative transportation. Give us a call at 202-481-6820 and we will be happy to talk to you in depth about it.

Thanks and have a happy holiday.

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John Townsend:

Well, every road has to end somewhere, as my grandparents used to say. We have come to the end of the road thanks for your questions and thanks for participating in the chatroom discussion about holiday travel and all things transportation. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year.

In parting, we recite the immortal words of Clement Clarke Moore:

"He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.'"

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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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