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Posted at 8:15 AM ET, 11/10/2010

Navigating northeast for holidays

By Robert Thomson

Thinking of Thanksgiving travel l Avoiding holiday driving dangers l Capital Weather Gang l Construction updates

A reader in Montgomery County sent me this question about holiday travels, and both he and I could use your advice:

We're driving to Maine, and our priority is getting there as quickly as possible. We've done this trip many times, but I've never been satisfied that we've taken the best route. Like everybody else, I hate the clogging before the Delaware toll booths. And while I-95 most of the way is the most direct route, we've encountered major delays in New York after crossing the George Washington Bridge.

We've tried avoiding Delaware and New York City by going through Pennsylvania on I-83/I-81/I-84 and staying on I-84 to the Massachusetts Turnpike, which does seem to be much more open but adds about 50 miles. We've also gotten around New York City by taking the Garden State Parkway to the New York Thruway (I-287) east across the Tappan Zee Bridge to I-84, but the Garden State has its own traffic headaches and also adds miles.

What haven't we thought of?

DG: Not much. I've tried all those routes and read commentary on them from many travelers over the year's that we've had these getaway discussions.

My readers share a loathing for the Delaware toll plaza, one of the worst bottlenecks on the East Coast and a chronic problem when traffic volume surges around the holidays. This fall, the congestion has been quite severe, because the Delaware Department of Transportation is using federal stimulus money to build highway speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the Newark Toll Plaza.

The project isn't scheduled to be done till next summer, but the lane closings that have made traffic extra difficult since September are scheduled to end temporarily on Nov. 17. So all the travel lanes will be open for Thanksgiving, and will stay open through New Year's weekend.

Still, there will be those holiday traffic volumes to deal with. Some northbound travelers like to bypass the toll plaza along this route: I-95 to Route 279 toward Newark, Del., then right onto Iron Hill Road, then left onto Chestnut Hill Road, then right onto Route 896 (South College Avenue), then back onto I-95.

Others say take Route 279 to Elkton Road, which becomes Route 2. Then go north about two miles, right on Route 4 (Christiana Parkway) for about a mile, then right again on College Avenue, with I-95 ahead.

Other travelers from the D.C. area go across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and take Route 301 north over the scenic Eastern Shore up to I-95 in Delaware, east of the toll plaza.

I like the route through Pennsylvania into New Jersey and New York on I-83/I-81/I-84, then on to I-91 in Connecticut and the Mass Pike. The Pennsylvania part is scenic and less congested than I-95, but you've got to watch the weather, because of the higher elevations. The Grid Spouse, however, agrees with my letter writer that the extra mileage is a turn-off.

The key thing is that there are no undiscovered shortcuts, so every holiday route is likely to be crowded, especially from Tuesday night through Wednesday night before Thanksgiving and then again on the Sunday afternoon return.

That said, is there any one of these routes you think works best, or an alternative we haven't discussed?

By Robert Thomson  | November 10, 2010; 8:15 AM ET
Categories:  Getaways  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, travel tips  
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On holidays, I'm a big believe in 83 after Baltimore. (Then navigating to the East after that to pick up 287 if going to NJ/NY/CT) or as he suggests continuing north if you are going to Boston or points north.

Yes, it adds 40-60 miles to your trip, but it is largely free of traffic. I would rather spend an extra hour moving at 60 mph than sitting in traffic. When I lived in CA, the trip from San Francisco to San Diego was 500 miles, but I was never as stressed as I am after driving on 95. As long as you avoid the worst traffic in L.A., then it was smooth sailing.

Posted by: oldtimehockey | November 10, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

There is indeed another alternative, but it's not one many people would be likely to think of or use. If you REALLY want to go a different way that avoids New York-related traffic in both New Jersey and Connecticut, you can try this, as it bypasses both of those states:

(a) I-81 north to Binghamton, New York. (I assume you can find your way to I-81 via whatever route works best for you. I'm partial to the I-270 to US-15 way.)

(b) Then I-88 towards Albany (signs say east, but I-88 only goes in one direction anyway).

(c) I-88 ends at the Thruway (I-90) near Schenectady. Take I-90 east towards Albany.

(d) If you exit the Thruway at Exit 24 (I-87 and I-90; signs list Albany and Montreal as the control cities), there is no toll for this stretch. Or you can stay on the Thruway to Exit 21A, which is for the Thruway's Berkshire Connector towards Boston (it connects to the Massachusetts Turnpike). If it's rush hour, I'd say use the Exit 21A route; otherwise, take Exit 24 and then stay on I-90 through Albany and over the river. It meets the Berkshire Connector a ways to the east (you'll have to pay a toll).

(e) Either way, you'll be on I-90, which becomes the Massachusetts Turnpike. I assume you can find your preferred route to Maine from there (most often either the I-495 exit or the I-290 to I-495 route).

Longer drive distance-wise? Heck, yeah; from my house, it adds 140 miles or so compared to a straight shot up the New Jersey Turnpike and Merritt Parkway. Is it worth doing to avoid traffic? I don't know because it's not a route I've used to go towards Maine. I'd use I-81 to I-88 in a heartbeat if I were going up the Northway (I-87) to the Adirondacks or mid-Vermont (Killington, Mad River Glen) or to Quebec. I just haven't tried it for trips further east. You certainly avoid most of the toll roads south of New York City and a lot of the traffic, and you certainly get a chance to see some different scenery. To me, it's often worth going a different route just for a change of pace, although I also concede that when a route is familiar it often seems to go by more quickly because you recognize all the landmarks that serve as waypoints in your mind.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 10, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Another, less radical suggestion:

In Connecticut, use the Merritt Parkway/Wilbur Cross Parkway combination. No commercial traffic is allowed on the road and it usually moves reasonably well outside of rush hours. You avoid both I-95 through Connecticut, which is a HORRIBLE road, and I-84 through Danbury and Waterford, which is old and slow and twisty. You pick up the Merritt on your way north at the northern end of the Hutchinson River Parkway (if you take the GW Bridge, go across the Bronx and then just take the Hutch north; if you take the Tappan Zee Bridge, follow I-287 until you see the signs for the Merritt Parkway). At its northern end it dumps you into I-91 between New Haven and Hartford and then you go north and just follow the signs for I-84.

I highly recommend the Merritt/Wilbur Cross route over both I-84 and I-95. I've always found it to be sort of a relaxing break from the northeastern rat-race, and it's scenic.

If you want an alternate route to the Tappan Zee Bridge on your way north:

Coming up the New Jersey Turnpike, you can take the Palisades Parkway to the Thruway. But note that you'll still encounter the worst of the GW Bridge traffic, as the exit for the parkway comes just before the bridge's toll plaza.

Or if you go through Pennsylvania, when you're coming east on I-78, try taking I-287 north to the Thruway, then going east (no toll until you hit the Tappan Zee Bridge). It's a longer route mileage-wise than the Garden State Parkway, but it has less traffic and no toll barriers.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 10, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

One final tip: In Maine, if your travel will take you into Portland from the Maine Turnpike (I-95), do not use Exit 44, the direct exit for I-295. Instead, stay on the Turnpike for half a mile further north to Exit 45 (Maine Mall Road). Take that exit and then use the second ramp on the right, which will put you onto I-295 into Portland.

The reason is that there is a 60ยข toll if you take Exit 44 but no toll if you take Exit 45. Locals call Exit 44 the "Tourist Exit" because everyone in Maine knows to avoid it. The Maine Turnpike is set up to minimize the tolls for state residents while socking it to out-of-staters. Hence, no toll for the local exit for the Maine Mall, but a toll when you exit onto the other Interstate.

While I don't normally care much about avoiding a minuscule toll like this one, when the bypass is so absurdly easy I see no reason not to do so.

(I learned of this tip from "thetan" on this forum back when he called himself "Woodley Park." I later saw the same tip on a list of "50 Things Every Maine Resident Should Know.")

BTW, the same advice does not apply going south because there is always a toll when you enter the Maine Turnpike. They just don't always charge you when you exit.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 10, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

My best idea for traveling home during the holidays is I leave my car parked at work, Metro to Union Station and take Amtrak home. As the train speeds by the Jersey Turnpike / parking lot, I can sleep, read another page, daydream out the window or go to the club car & get a beer. I will NEVER, EVER again drive from DC to New England as long as the Northeast Corridor trains run.

Last year, as I waited on the platform for the southbound train, it started to snow. A couple of hours later, all the airlines were messed up. I don't know about the roads. I was nice and warm while speeding back to DC.

Posted by: ms1234 | November 10, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: rugbug48 | November 10, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I'll echo just about everything 1995hoo said....and add that avoiding the "tourist exit" in Maine will now save you $1 now that they increased the toll rates.

Be careful of any route that takes you through Harrisburg PA though....traffic can get tied up in knots there during Thanksgiving/Christmas weeks. Its generally better to go west on PA 581 and north on I-81 than to go east on PA 581 and north on I-83 to get to I-81. But the section of I-81 between I-83 and I-78 is a drag when traffic is heavy.

When I've driven up to New York/New England over the holidays, I've done a hybrid route....go east of I-95 to get to Wilmington, then west of I-95 to get past NJ. I'll typically do US 50/301 over the Bay Bridge into Delaware, then I-495, I-95, and I-476 onto the NE Extension of the PA Turnpike. Then take US 22 east, PA 33 south, I-78 east, I-287 north/east over the Tappan Zee, and onto the Hutchinson River/Merritt Parkways into CT. If you go through PA, taking I-476 to Allentown is shorter than going via Harrisburg (though not by all that much).

And one piece of advice from 1995hoo that I'll disagree with is this: "(if you take the GW Bridge, go across the Bronx and then just take the Hutch north)." Don't do that. Take the Henry Hudson Parkway or I-87 north to the Saw Mill River Parkway north (Henry Hudson runs right into the Saw Mill, on I-87, take Exit 12), then take Exit 4 to the Cross County Parkway which ends at the Hutchinson River Parkway. Faster than the Cross Bronx Expressway at almost any time of day.

Posted by: thetan | November 10, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

"Be careful of any route that takes you through Harrisburg PA though....traffic can get tied up in knots there during Thanksgiving/Christmas weeks. Its generally better to go west on PA 581 and north on I-81 than to go east on PA 581 and north on I-83 to get to I-81. But the section of I-81 between I-83 and I-78 is a drag when traffic is heavy."

I agree with all of this as well. I-83 around the east side of Harrisburg is an old road that is not well-designed and t usually gets heavy traffic. I know it all too well from trips to Hershey Bears games.

The last time I drove north (to Brooklyn this past July the weekend after Independence Day) we went a different way, exiting I-83 at York* and then taking US-30 east to Lancaster, then US-222 north to Reading, then PA-61 to I-78. We could have stayed on US-222 over to Allentown, but in my experience that way is a bit slower due to traffic, and there were a bunch of lunch possibilities on PA-61 as it was that time of day. The nice thing about this route was that the mountains provided some different scenery than you normally get on the way to New York.

As far as the Cross Bronx thing goes, I generally just avoid that area altogether. I was just trying to keep the directions as simple as possible for someone who might not know the roads, but in general I would agree that avoiding the Cross Bronx Expressway is always a good idea.

*Regarding exiting I-83 at York, take a look at a map and you'll see that it's more direct to exit prior to the US-30 exit and then go straight north for a few blocks. I-83 loops back around to the west before it meets US-30 and it's rather out of the way to go that way. Plus US-30 is named "Arsenal Road" through there and who wants to drive on a road named after those tossers :-)

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 10, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Hey, guys, I love Amtrak too, but anything north of NYC is an unbearably long time on the train, even on the Acela.

Posted by: oldtimehockey | November 10, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I just looked up the York exit I mentioned before. It's Exit 19 on northbound I-83 and the sign says Market Street. You just go straight ahead at the bottom of the ramp and it's half a mile north to US-30. It's 3.5 miles shorter to go this way than it is to stay on I-83 to the US-30 exit.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 10, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Yes, and that route works well the other way too...make a left at the first traffic light you encounter, travel as far south as you can until you are forced to make a right or left...turn right, and the entrance to I-83 south is on the right.

I avoided suggesting the US 30/US 222 route because the section north of Reading can get pretty tied up with traffic, but I've never tried the PA 61 route. Perhaps I will this weekend when I head up to CT/MA.

Posted by: thetan | November 10, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I've only used the PA-61 route the one time, so I don't have vast experience with it. I believe I found it online when I was reading some of Michael Dresser's columns--he's with the Baltimore Sun in sort of an equivalent to the Dr. Gridlock role, and one of his missions seems to be publicizing the gospel of "Delaware Avoidance Routes." It worked well this summer when I was driving to New York with my parents for a family reunion and we were starting to get hungry. There are a couple of other roads northeast of there that also connect US-222 to I-78, but I always recall US-222 really slowing down once you're on the non-limited-access stretch up towards Kutztown. It's 11.4 miles up PA-61, so it seemed as good as any other route.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 10, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

BTW, I thought about calling Mr. Dresser "the Baltimore Sun's viatologist, like Dr. Gridlock," but then I thought better of it because I didn't want to insult either Dr. Gridlock or Mr. Dresser. :-)

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 10, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

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