The Washington Post

Driving to Raleigh, N.C.: For control freaks, it’s the best way to go

Plane, train or automobile? Which is best if you’re heading someplace that’s not really close, but not all that far away, either? To help you decide, we took all three transportation modes to the on-the-cusp destination of Raleigh, N.C.

I’m a driver. When I travel, I drive. Everywhere I can. Up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Into the Midwest. Cross-country. All over foreign nations. Heck, I’d drive across the Atlantic or the Pacific if they’d only build some bridges or causeways or a tunnel along the ocean floor.

It’s not that I hate to fly (okay, I do; who doesn’t?) or that I find the train too slow (well, actually, yes). It’s just that I’m a control freak. I like to pilot my own craft and plot my own route. I’ll set my own schedule, thankyouverymuch. And I don’t mind saving a few pennies while I’m at it.

So when we decide to test out the best mode of transportation for traveling to kind-of-close-and-yet-still-far Raleigh, N.C., (plane, train or car) for a weekend, of course I’m going to be the one to drive. Google Maps clocks the 262-mile trip from my house to the Holiday Inn Downtown-Capital, our meeting point, at 4 hours and 13 minutes — a piece of road-trip cake! Why in the world would anyone even contemplate the hassles of flying, or the crawl of the train, when you can just step out your door, zip down the highway and arrive right at the threshold of your destination in such a short span?


Taking Amtrak to Raleigh, N.C., and whistling all the way

On the plane to Raleigh, does speed make up for discomfort?

Yes, I know, I know. I-95 is a bear. Busybusybusy. A partial parking lot many days. It can make you crazy. But I’ll take my chances. I am driver, hear me roar!

At 11:47 a.m. on a recent Friday, I’m buckled up and ready to go. But first I have to back out of the alley behind my house, which I really, really hate doing, because this is one narrow lane, and our new car is wide. So I go very sloooowly. And then, wouldn’t you know, a garbage truck pulls up in the street at the alley entrance, making the maneuvering even trickier. I blush to admit that it takes me, uh . . . seven minutes to pull into the street. Aargh. I’m not counting that time!

Okay, 11:54, and now we’re really off. Down P Street to Rock Creek Parkway, smooth sailing across Memorial Bridge to the 395 turnoff, where I hope that the HOV lanes have been opened to southbound traffic. But uh-oh, no such luck. I have to muscle my way into the traffic already snaking down 95 through Alexandria.

It’s heavy, but it’s moving. Can’t get up much past 45 or 50 mph, but that’s fast enough for me to whoosh right past a now-opened entrance to the HOV lanes. Shoot! But wait, one more chance on the other side of the Beltway. This one I don’t miss, steering onto those fast lanes just in the nick of time, as everybody in the regular ones slows to a serpentine slither. Whew.

I make good time breezing past the poor saps stuck in stop-and-go mode, but of course the express lanes, like all good things, must come to an end. At Dumfries, I’m dumped back into the molasses stream, and for the next 15 miles, there’s a lot of braking and downshifting and stuttering and stopping and, okay, a little (mild, I swear) cursing. And wondering, who are all these people and why are they all going the same way I am? (I know that’s what you think, too.)

I do get to admire the fabulous purple wisteria blooming wild along the sides of the road, but still I wish they’d hurry up and extend those HOV lanes to Fredericksburg, which it has taken me an hour and a quarter to reach. Not so good.

Yet in F-burg, like magic, the traffic opens up, and all at once I’m flying. Yay! This is more like it. Swooping down toward Richmond, the only thing that bothers me is a flatbed truck that decides to sit tight. on. my. tail for 10 nerve-racking minutes. He finally zooms past me on the right, revealing the words “Very Hateful” spray-painted on the back of his cab. I’ll say.

Just outside Richmond, another potential bottleneck suddenly looms. A roadside emergency sign is flashing news of a downtown event and the dreaded words, “Expect Delays.” Oh no. The sign advises through traffic to use the I-295 bypass around the city, but no can do. It would take me beyond the exit to I-85 that’s my next turnoff.

There’s no choice but to barrel on along 95 through downtown. And barrel I do. I guess everyone else has obediently taken the bypass, because there’s not a whisper of a delay. I’ve cleared Richmond at precisely the two-hour mark. Woo-hoo!

And the rest of the trip? Butter-smooth. I-85 that Friday afternoon is lightly traveled, and I zoom along at 70, no problem. The speed limit’s lower on the last leg, along U.S. 1, but the road’s nearly empty — until about 20 miles outside Raleigh, when the traffic lights start to appear and the vehicles multiply like bunnies. Must be Raleigh rush hour — which is nothing like Washington’s, thank goodness. The going’s definitely slower, but we’re still moving.

Becky texts at 3:51 p.m. that she’s arrived. Darn it, she beat me. But not by much. At exactly 4:20, I pull into the parking lot next to the hotel.

Piece of cake.

Total time (one way)

4 hours, 26 minutes

Total cost (round trip)


Stress level (1-10)


The upshot of our experiment? Well, the plane is fastest, the car cheapest and the train the least stressful. But basically, how you choose to go really depends on your personality type. So here’s our quick and easy guide to the best mode for you:


The friendly skies are made for: Goal-oriented travelers who just want to get there and hit the ground running or rich-as-Croesus travelers for whom money is no object. And, of course, loyalty-club travelers who just want to rack up those frequent-flier miles.


Riding the rails is best for: laid-back travelers who think that the journey is half the fun and timid travelers who fear flying and don’t dare to drive. Also eco-minded travelers concerned about their carbon footprint.


You’ll drive if you’re: a control-freak traveler who wants to go when you want to go or a cheapskate traveler who hates to shell out more for transport than absolutely necessary. Or a lots-of-luggage traveler who likes to haul along half your household.

Zofia Smardz is deputy editor of The Post's Travel section. She joined Travel after eight years editing provocative opinion articles in the Sunday Outlook section.



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