Whether by car, plane, train or bus, more Americans are expected to travel this Thanksgiving holiday than in previous years, jamming airports, roads and rails and testing the patience of fellow travelers.
According to AAA, nearly 51 million Americans — the highest number in 12 years — are expected to venture 50 miles or more from home, a 3.3 percent increase over last year. In the Washington region alone, 1.2 million people are expected to be on the move for the holiday.
AAA defines the holiday travel period as Wednesday through Sunday.
"A strong economy and labor market are generating rising incomes and higher consumer confidence, fueling a strong year for the travel industry," said Bill Sutherland, a AAA senior vice president. He said the trend will probably extend through the remainder of the holiday season.
Airlines for America, a trade group that represents some of the nation's largest air carriers, predicts that between Nov. 17 and Nov. 28, more than 28.5 million people will fly on U.S. airlines. AAA also says Americans will pay the lowest holiday airfares since 2013.
Here are some tips for making it through this busy travel period.
Traveling by air:
If you're headed to Reagan National Airport, keep in mind that parking during the holiday season can fill up quickly. One way you can guarantee a space is to use the airport's advance reservation system.
Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport is offering 60 minutes of free parking in its hourly garage. The goal is to make it easier to drop off or meet passengers. The airport also is moving the pickup and drop-off areas for hotel shuttles, off-airport parking shuttles and ride-hail companies such as Uber and Lyft to the upper-level departures level. Airport officials also are adding 50 spaces to the cellphone waiting lot for the holiday travel period.
If you don't want to drive, remember that all three airports are accessible via public transportation. Metro has a stop at National Airport. If you are headed to Washington Dulles International Airport, you can take the Silver Line to the Wiehle-Reston East station and catch the Silver Line express bus to the airport. The cost for the bus is $5 each way, and the ride takes about 15 minutes. Note: The express bus does not accept SmarTrip cards.
For those who want to take public transportation to BWI, try Amtrak or Maryland's MARC commuter rail service from Baltimore or Washington. The B30 BWI express Metrobus offers service between Metro's Greenbelt station and the airport. There is also commuter bus service for people in Montgomery County via the Intercounty Connector. The Route 201 ICC Commuter Bus offers service between Gaithersburg, the Shady Grove Metro station, other stops in Montgomery County and BWI.
Also, be sure to check with your airline before heading out to get the status of your flight. Most airlines have apps that make it easier to check flight status, as well as to check in or, if needed, rebook a ticket.
Airport officials recommend that you arrive at the airport at least two hours before domestic flights and three hours ahead of international travel.
Changes to airport screening:
If you are flying, keep in mind that new security procedures are in place at all three of the region's airports.
The change means that unless you are a member of TSA's PreCheck program, in addition to your laptop, you'll need to put any electronic device larger than a cellphone — such as e-readers and iPads — into separate bins for screening. The screening changes are prompted by worries that terrorists could hide explosives in large electronic devices.
There are no changes to what you can bring on board, but the TSA is encouraging you to declutter your bags to make it easier for screeners to get a clear look at what's inside.
One tip from the TSA: If you place food items toward the top of your bags or in separate bins for screening, you might be less likely to be pulled aside for secondary screening.
Traveling by rail:
Amtrak this month unveiled refurbished train interiors for passengers who travel its Northeast and Midwest routes. The new seat cushions and carpets are part of a $16 million effort to make for a better travel experience.
At an event designed to showcase the new interiors, Mark Yachmetz, vice president for Northeast Corridor business development, said it was time for a "refresh."
"At some point, you have to recycle the interiors and do something new," he said. "No matter how hard you try to clean this stuff, you can't get it clean."
As part of that, the blue cloth seats that have been a mainstay in the fleet since the 1990s are being replaced with gray faux-leather coverings that are easier to clean and maintain. Trains in the fleet are also getting new carpeting. The new seats have lumbar support. Passengers on regional trains along the Northeast Corridor may already have seen some of the changes Amtrak hopes to have completed by the spring or summer.
"The upgrades offer customers what they told us they want more of during their travels: a more comfortable refreshed look and feel," Amtrak co-chief executive Wick Moorman said.
Last year, more than 750,000 people traveled via Amtrak during the Thanksgiving period, and a similar count is expected in 2017. Amtrak officials urge travelers to download the railroad system's app to help smooth their traveling experience.
Amtrak set a ridership record in fiscal 2017, with 31.7 million passenger trips — an increase of 1.5 percent over the previous year. A record 12 million riders traveled the busy Northeast Corridor.
Traveling by car:
Record numbers of travelers also mean the possibility of record gridlock. AAA says drivers will be paying the highest Thanksgiving gas prices since 2014, but that's not expected to discourage drivers.
According to AAA and INRIX, a global transportation analytics company, travel in some of the nation's most congested cities could take as much as three times longer than the optimal trip.
"This Thanksgiving nearly two out of every 10 Americans are traveling for the upcoming holiday period," AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II said. "With 45.5 million people . . . traveling by car over the Thanksgiving weekend, try to avoid traveling through major cities during peak travel times."
AAA and INRIX recommend that motorists avoid hitting the roads between 4:45 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday, when travel times could be double what they normally are.
The team at Google Maps also recommends that you avoid travel in the late afternoon Wednesday. Instead, consider leaving Thanksgiving morning. To avoid the worst traffic on your way home, start your trip back early Saturday or Sunday morning, they advise.
Here are some of their thoughts on the best and worst times to be on the road if you live in the Washington region:
Best day and time to leave: 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day
Worst time to leave: 3 p.m. Wednesday
Best time to start to return home: 6 a.m. Sunday
Worst time to start to return home: 4 p.m. Saturday
Before you leave, be sure to update your smartphone. Many apps are available to help you navigate the holiday rush. If you're driving, Google Maps and Waze can help you find the best routes. And even if you can't avoid traffic, they can at least give you an idea of how long it might take you to get where you're going.
Also note that Virginia, Maryland and most other East Coast states are part of the 511 information system. You can dial 511 and get up-to-date information on travel conditions. AAA also has an app that will help you map your route, find cheap gas and, if necessary, request roadside assistance.
If you're traveling with children, be sure to have books, games and other distractions to keep peace in the back seat. Snacks and water are also a good bet, as well as an emergency kit.