By train, plane or car, and from near and far, Washington area residents made the return trip from Thanksgiving weekend yesterday and found thousands of bedfellows but few travel snags.
On what is traditionally the busiest travel day of the year, the crisp, dry weather helped keep delays to a minimum. The region's three airports reported snarl-free arrivals and departures, while train and bus stations bustled with passengers but eased them all through.
An estimated 564,000 area residents hit the roadways and went 50 miles or more from home this holiday, according to a AAA spokeswoman. Peak congestion between 3 and 6 p.m. yesterday forced many motorists to tap the brakes instead of hitting the gas.
Airport officials estimated that 77,000 people would move through Baltimore-Washington International Airport during the Thanksgiving holiday period, an 11-day window that began the Friday before Thanksgiving and ends today.
Last year, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Thanksgiving weekend air travel was much lighter. Passenger traffic at Reagan National Airport, for example, was down about 40 percent, said Tara Hamilton of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. This weekend, it was back to 100 percent there and at Dulles International Airport, she said.
Danell West, 30, of Alexandria and her sister, Hillery, 26, of Frederick, were among many air travelers who were pleasantly shocked about how easy their trip was. From BWI, the sisters had hopped a plane to St. Louis and then driven two hours to Christopher, Ill., to visit their grandmother.
"We checked in in 20 minutes [in St. Louis], and everything went smoothly," Danell West said after returning yesterday, surrounded by her suitcases at the baggage claim area for Southwest Airlines.
Steve Vaughn and his wife, Sharon, drove to National to drop off their daughter for a US Airways flight to South Carolina. They were an hour early.
"They were saying 300,000 people would be traveling today," said Steve Vaughn of Poolesville. "Traffic was easy and I found a space, and here we are."
Marilia Ferro was an accidental Thanksgiving weekend passenger. She went to Florida a month ago to visit her ill mother and decided last week that she would return yesterday.
For that spur-of-the-moment decision, she spent days frantically calling airline ticket agents, who could not find an open seat. On Saturday, as she spoke by telephone to an agent, a cancellation finally came through.
Ferro said the plane into BWI was uncomfortably full, but she liked that people were feeling confident about flying.
"I think it's a good thing for the economy," she said.
On the ground, foot traffic through Washington's Union Station was steady throughout the day. Some seasoned travelers arriving in the afternoon said the station seemed less crowded than it had been Wednesday or during Thanksgiving holidays in years past.
"It was the easiest, least-crowded train ever this year," said Elizabeth Hallowell, a Philadelphia native who returned to Washington after spending the long weekend with relatives. "A couple of years ago, there were delays, and I got stuck on a train for 2 1/2 hours."
For holiday workers such as Amtrak baggage handler Donnie Mathews, it was all congestion all the time. He worked a 10-hour shift yesterday and was just as busy as he was Wednesday. And Wednesday, he said, was extremely busy.
"It's been nonstop all day long," Mathews said as he helped a woman load bags into the trunk of a car. "The people who were coming in on Wednesday are going out, and the people going out are coming in. It's like the sun -- if it goes up, it's gotta come back down."
At the Greyhound bus terminal, Sharon Redfearn, who lives in the District, was meeting a friend returning from a visit with relatives in Georgia. Redfearn said she was most impressed by what she did not see: people at the bus station pushing and shoving.
"It's really pretty mild compared to what I've seen at Christmas and New Year's," she said. "It's orderly, at least, and I like that."
Staff writers Monte Reel and Lisa Rein and news services contributed to this report.