Jeffrey Josephs smiled at the screaming children yesterday, and laughed as their parents heaved luggage at his feet. Like every other skycap working at National Airport on the busiest day of the year, Josephs was a popular guy.

"I keep telling them I only work for Redskins tickets," he said, as hundreds of passengers crowded the main terminal, dragging duffel bags and battered suitcases. "But so far nobody has bought the line. I guess even desperate people have limits."

Thousands of Washington area residents, spurred in part by the largest variety of discount air fares in years, and confounded by bad weather, packed highways, train stations and airports yesterday as they left town for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in what appeared to be record numbers.

"This year the travel will be enormous, almost incredible," said Douglas Neilson, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. He said that in the 24-hour period ending at noon today, more Americans would be on the move than during any other day of the year.

Citing a strong economy, fierce competition among airlines and the fact that Christmas this year falls in the middle of the week, the AAA has said that 34 million people -- more than 14 percent of the population -- will travel on this holiday weekend, 4 million of them in the mid-Atlantic states.

By early yesterday evening the rain-soaked highways around the capital were clogged with automobiles, and Union Station was packed with frustrated travelers waiting for seats on crowded trains.

A spokesman for Amtrak said that all seats for Metroliner service between Washington and New York were sold out through Thanksgiving Day.

"I just want to go home -- by plane or train," said Michael Smithers, 16, a student at Virginia's Woodbury Forest School, looking dazed and overburdened in the middle of Union Station as he tried to get on a train to Philadelphia. "I just didn't realize it would be like this."

Apparently, few people did. Police reported a rash of minor accidents that tied up key arteries, and an empty tractor-trailer jackknifed on the inner loop of the Capital Beltway just west of New Hampshire Avenue.

By noon yesterday traffic on the Beltway was backed up, and Virginia State Police were advising motorists to use public transportation or travel after noon today, when the fewest people are on the road.

Area traffic officials said that anyone who could travel today or on Saturday should do so, because tomorrow is traditionally the first day of the Christmas shopping season and roads leading to suburban malls will be crowded.

By early yesterday afternoon all available parking at National Airport, and much of the space at Dulles International Airport, was occupied, and officials at both airports urged travelers to avoid driving there.

Virtually every airline in the region offered a special discount air fare for the weekend, most requiring that the passenger fly today after noon, and sometime on Saturday. Because today and Sunday are among the air industry's most busy and successful days, most carriers want to encourage people to fly on days that are not nearly as congested.

"We're just about booked from here on out," said Hap Pareti, president of Presidential Airways, the new discount carrier based at Dulles. "The time around Thanksgiving has always been about the busiest period in the business."

Both Dulles and National put airport police on overtime yesterday, but the heavy congestion at National did not translate to more planes in the air, according to the tower chief, Harry Hubbard.

"We have a quota for how many planes can fly out of here," he said. "I assume we have fewer empty seats than normal, but the skies are not too crowded and the delays are about normal for a busy day."

To many people, the long lines and crowded highways were worth the wait.

"I'll stand here all afternoon if I have to," said Cerie Wood, a computer operator for NASA, who was here for a seminar. "I want to get home and cook a turkey and see my family, and I will do whatever I have to do to get there."

To some people the busy day seemed almost a joke.

"They aren't my customers," said Luis Suarez, manager of the barbershop at National Airport, as he stared at scores of people who had no time to get a haircut. "This holiday is always bad for my business. Nobody wants to stop here; they don't understand. Next week the businessmen will come back, and I can get back to work."