Don’t panic. Just plan.
The key to your Christmas getaway this week may turn out to be a bit of last minute fine-tuning in your preparations.
Let’s start with the majority of you who will be driving away from the D.C. region.
Public school calendars bind many travelers. At Christmas time, schools in the D.C. region break at different times. Some begin winter break Monday. Others will dismiss students Thursday, and some are open until Friday.
As families are unleashed, each weekday evening rush hour is likely to feature a combination of regular commuters, holiday shoppers and getaway traffic. Expect particularly slow travel on Thursday and Friday along the major escape routes.
Christmas Eve on local highways is going to be a mix of desperate holiday shoppers and determined getaway drivers with little flexibility. Christmas Day will be a great day to travel. Unlike Thanksgiving, when the big family events are generally in the afternoon and evening, many people who celebrate Christmas want to be with friends and family by the morning.
Monday is the federal holiday and a holiday for many private employees.
Drivers should put even more emphasis on watching the weather than they do around Thanksgiving. Many are traveling farther, so what’s merely mist at the start of a trip can become something else by the time they get farther north, or reach a mountain range.
Here are some of the alternative routes that drivers have shared.
To the Northeast: The Baltimore-Washington Parkway or Interstate 95 to the Baltimore Beltway, around the west side of Baltimore to I-83 north, and then to I-81 north, just east of Harrisburg, Pa. Follow I-81 north, then take I-78 east into New Jersey. There, drivers can take I-287 to I-80, picking up I-95 for the George Washington Bridge (toll eastbound), or continue north on I-287 to the New York State Thruway and take the Tappan Zee Bridge (toll eastbound) over the Hudson.
South and west in Virginia: Avoid much of I-81 and part of I-66 by taking U.S. 29 south from Gainesville through Culpeper, Charlottesville and on to Lynchburg, where you can take U.S. 460 west to join I-81 at Roanoke. Picking up I-81 at this point avoids some of the worst pockets of congestion and truck traffic farther north.
West in Maryland: I often hear from travelers who head away on I-270 and I-70 and wind up in Breezewood, Pa., to connect with I-76 westbound. Breezewood is a notorious bottleneck because it has no seamless link between the interstates.
My key advisers — you people who write to me — suggest using I-68 west of Hancock, Md., to connect with the Pittsburgh area. U.S. 220, 219 and 40 are potential north-south connectors. Another option: Link I-68 with I-79 in the Morgantown, W.Va., area.
The holiday crush won’t be limited to the region’s roads and highways, so my colleague Lori Aratani offers this advice for air travelers:
If you’re traveling on the busiest days leading up to Christmas — Thursday and Friday — expect big crowds at the D.C. region’s three major airports. In general, airport officials encourage you to arrive two hours before your scheduled departure.
If you’re worried about parking at Reagan National Airport, you can reserve a space. You’ll have to book at least 24 hours before you need the space, and you can’t arrive more than two hours ahead of your parking reservation. Use this Web address for reservations: flyreagan.com/dca/parking-reservations .
Officials at National urge drivers not to use the airport’s congested roadways as a cut-through. If the cellphone lot is full, park elsewhere. Don’t circle the airport roads.
A note about TSA screening: Wrapped gifts are allowed but not encouraged, since officers may have to unwrap said gift if there’s a question about its contents.
If you have a disability or medical condition or are traveling with a family member who does and have questions about the screening, call the TSA special hotline TSA Cares, at 800-787-2227, at least 72 hours before traveling.
If your trip takes you through Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles or Newark, there’s good news. TSA officials have set up several automated screening lines to speed travelers through security. Instead of you waiting for the person in front to fill a bin, the new system has multiple stations where travelers can load their items into bins.
Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.