Endless traffic jams and forever-long lines in airports, bus and train stations on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after have reached such epic proportions that many holiday-goers are avoiding those days altogether and opting for week-long getaways instead.
Enough, they've said, with the four-day sprint that started with a rush out of office and home on Wednesday afternoon, followed by a furious day of cooking, followed by angst about when to return. The only thing that ever seemed to slow down was the traffic.
Instead they've created a new vacation tradition: a getaway week with family, with November's turkey and stuffing instead of summer's surf and sand.
"It makes the whole thing less stressful," said Annette Moore, whose family will spend the week with relatives in Houston. "It gives us a chance to kind of get there, relax a little on the front end and when it comes time for Thanksgiving, it's not so crazy. It ends up being just one of those nice, long weeks."
By Wednesday, when highway and airport traffic peaks, she and her family will be enjoying their fifth day away. Yes, the 6-year-old will miss three days of school to accommodate the trip and, yes, spending a week with family brings some of its own hassles, but Moore said it's so very worth it to get out of town before everyone else.
"It's become kind of a tradition to go to Aunt Diane's on Thanksgiving week," the Fairfax County resident said, about what will be the Moores' fourth year in Houston after several years of visiting family locally. "We'll go to the zoo while we're down there and take the kids to a movie." Maybe they'll even take a side trip to Louisiana, and her husband will get in a round of golf. "It's a vacation, the whole thing," she said.
One result of the shift in plans that people such as the Moores are making is that traffic on Wednesday and Sunday is not quite as bad as it used to be.
"Traditionally, the commute from hell was on Wednesday nights," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "I think that's shifted in the last couple years, and more people are leaving earlier for their destinations and spreading out the holiday. Some people are using vacation time to take that whole week off to avoid the frustration of being stuck in traffic and to spend quality time with their family."
Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Dulles International and Reagan National airports, said fliers are making the same adjustment. "People are basically taking a week off," she said, noting that parking spots will be scarce at National, and possibly Dulles, all week.
"The conventional wisdom was always the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after were the busiest travel days of the year for airlines. You say that enough times, and people start wondering why they're traveling those days."
Make no mistake, though. The day before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after are still among the worst travel days of the year, Townsend said. And one downside of the shifting travel patterns is that it can be hard to gauge what traffic will be like at any point during the week. For instance, "many people try to wait it out by going on Thanksgiving Day," Townsend said. "That can be the commute from hell, too."
Overall, AAA is predicting that a record 683,000 Washingtonians will take trips of 50 miles or more this Thanksgiving week, a slight increase over last year. That's about 14 percent of the area's population, and nearly 600,000 of the travelers will drive to their destinations.
One thing that drivers will give thanks for this week is the lower price of gas. The average price of a gallon of gas in the Washington region is $2.26, according to AAA, a penny lower than the national average and nearly 60 cents lower than a month ago. Still, that price is 30 cents higher than last Thanksgiving.
Regina Hardter would take the whole week off, but she has to work Monday. Instead, she said, she'll be leaving "bright and early before the sun comes up Tuesday" to drive what she hopes will be four hours from Alexandria to Nazareth, Pa. "It's more convenient all around," Hardter said, even with taking the extra days off work. "I won't be stuck driving on the way there or coming home," she said, because going early means she'll return early.
And Hardter knows what that's like. She's done the six-should've-been-four-hour drive. "It generally hasn't seemed like a vacation," she said. "It's pretty stressful." She figures it would be a seven- or eight-hour drive this year if she left Wednesday afternoon. "It would be well into Thursday morning before I actually arrived," Hardter said.
Hamilton said huge crowds are expected this week at National and Dulles, where traffic has increased this year by 13 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Airport officials said five additional screening lines have been added at National, but travelers are still advised to arrive 21/2 hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international ones so they have enough time to get from car to gate.
Jonathan Dean, spokesman for Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, said the Thanksgiving travel period started at the end of the week, as fliers looked to avoid the rush and took advantage of cheap fares. He said traffic increased steadily starting Friday and would peak Wednesday.
Dean also recommended that travelers get to BWI plenty early, although he added that the airport does not expect a shortage of parking because of new facilities.
Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said train riders started to prolong their vacations beyond the Wednesday-to-Sunday norm a couple of years ago, when the system started requiring reservations for Thanksgiving week travel. Now the Thanksgiving rush extends from the Tuesday before through the Monday after the holiday.
This year, Black said, Thanksgiving week will be Amtrak's busiest of the year, with more than 600,000 riders nationwide, a 30 percent increase over a normal week. Many of those riders will be in the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, where Amtrak will operate more than 60 extra trains.
Cars crowd Dulles on Friday, as more travelers opt to get out of town before the traditional night-before-Thanksgiving rush, even if it means taking vacation days or skipping school.