The Washington Post

Tips for drivers on Memorial Day getaway planning

My annual summer getaway guide for drivers looks ahead to the entire vacation season, but let’s focus now on the immediate issue of leaving the D.C. area for the Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day travel Don’t get caught in this. (Reed Saxon/AP)

Getaway travelers often point out that timing the departure is often more important than selecting the route, since there are no undiscovered, congestion-free shortcuts during the busiest travel periods.

But if you’re traveling all the way across the D.C. region, you’re departure is likely to be done partly with rush-hour traffic and partly against it.

One Maryland traveler who will be be heading south for Memorial Day weekend wrote this:

I am driving to Winston-Salem, N.C., on the Friday before Memorial Day.

I will be leaving Ellicott City on Friday morning around 0900 hours. Do you think driving south on I-95, south of Washington, D.C., will be backed up and moving slowly, or at that time of day should it move fairly well? Or would I do better to go west and hit Interstate 81 before turning south. Google says that I-81 is about a 45-minute longer drive than going down I-95, but of course, that is probably based on no traffic and moving at the posted speeds.

Another alternative could be driving down Route 301 and moving over to I-95 somewhere south of Washington, if you think that would be wiser.

This is a bit tricky, because the driver is going to leave home late in the morning rush hour, heading toward the District, then swing around and head away from the District.

If traffic is normal — meaning there are no lanes closed because of crashes — this traveler should stick with the Friday morning departure time and the I-95 route.

At that hour, I don’t see any gain in going west to I-81 or east to Route 301. Wait a bit longer on Friday to let the traffic ease up north of the District? Then the congestion south of the Beltway on I-95 will begin to get much worse, to the point of making that Route 301 option look interesting. (I still wouldn’t swing way out west to join the truck traffic on I-81.)

The Virginia Department of Transportation has a very instructive map that allows drivers to see how traffic worsens on Virginia’s interstates during the Memorial Day getaway. Use the timeline slider across the top to see when and where traffic gets bad on the Fridays of Memorial Day weekends.

By 1 p.m. Fridays, it’s a very slow go southbound from Lorton to Fredericksburg. I-66 westbound outside the Capital Beltway has some difficult stretches from mid-afternoon to late afternoon Fridays. So does I-64 in Hampton Roads. But the Traffic Godzilla for getaway traffic is I-95.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.



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