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Thinking of Thanksgiving travel

By Robert Thomson

heavy traffic on I-95.jpg
How can getaway-bound drivers avoid heavy holiday traffic on Interstate 95? (Thomson)

Q. "I know Thanksgiving is still a few weeks away but . . . We are driving from Arlington to Northern New Jersey for the holiday. I am new to this as this is my first year not taking the train. We want to leave Wednesday night, maybe around 7 or 8? Do you think traffic will be terrible at that hour? Do you have any other suggestions for either a time to leave? Or a road to travel (instead of 95 to the Garden State Parkway)?"

So begins our annual discussion of when to leave and how to get there for the November-December holidays. That question arrived during my online discussion on Monday.

Yes, I think the traffic will be bad on Wednesday night, Nov. 24, the night before Thanksgiving. So if possible, leave earlier. Fine. But how much earlier? Bob Marbourg, the traffic guru at WTOP who has watched the holiday getaway for three decades, says it used to be that everyone heading out of the D.C. area for a long-distance driving getaway left on Wednesday, but "that ended about 10 years ago."

Now, drivers trying to sneak out on Tuesday night find they share the highway with lots of other sneakers. Doesn't that mean that Wednesday night should be better? Only if you take a nap and leave after midnight. There are still plenty of people who wait for the kids to get out of school on Wednesday and hit the highways then.

Gas prices tend not to be a good gauge of how crowded the highways will get. People will pay the extra money to get to Grandma's house.

If I had a choice of departure time, which many don't, I'd leave during the daylight on Tuesday. (For some, that may be a little too much of Grandma's house.) I invite your comments on departure times, and I'll have more to say, too, over the next few days. On Sunday, our Commuter page in The Post's Metro section will be devoted to the holiday getaway planning.

While many travelers tell me that timing is more important than route, since there are no undiscovered shortcuts, these are the suggestions I put out during the online chat for the Northeast getaway:

-- Route 50 across the Bay Bridge, to Route 301 to state road 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner Road) to Route 1 and Route 13. From there, drivers can reach I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

-- Baltimore Washington Parkway to I-695 north around the west side of Baltimore to I-83 north to I-81 north, just east of Harrisburg, Pa. Follow I-81 north, then take I-78 east into New Jersey.

-- From I-95 north, take Route 279 toward Newark, Del. Turn right onto Iron Hill Road. At the end, turn left onto Chestnut Hill Road. Then turn right onto Route 896 (South College Avenue). I-95 will be a quarter-mile down the road. (This would avoid the Delaware Toll Plaza, where there's been a lot of congestion lately because of the construction of the high speed E-ZPass lanes.)

On that last one, I got this response from a traveler: "There's a better way than Iron Hill Rd. Christiana Parkway, the first big intersection in Delaware. There's a bunch of lights and signs saying "Amtrak/SEPTA" pointing right at Christiana. Much less confusing than wandering down Iron Hill I've found."

We'll talk more about routes, too, so send us your suggestions for the getaway in all directions.

By Robert Thomson  | November 9, 2010; 9:20 AM ET
Categories:  Driving, Getaways  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, travel tips  
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I would highly recommend early Thursday morning. Very few people are on the road then.

Also, we used to visit my local family for Thanksgiving dinner, and then leave that evening for NJ to head to the in-laws (missing their dinner, but there for the long weekend) and there is very little traffic then. But come home Saturday night or early Sunday morning...

Posted by: dianalaird | November 9, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I used to live in NYC and would drive down to visit my family in DC for Thanksgiving. I learned that if you attempt the I-95 corridor on Wednesday, just double what it should take to figure out how long you'll be on the road (e.g., if it's a 4-hour drive, it's now an 8-hour drive).

Best bet is to drive on Thursday morning. It's no fun to get up at 6:00 to be there by 11:00, but there is virtually no traffic, allowing for a much faster and lower stress drive.

Posted by: federalworker | November 9, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: I agree with the drivers who recommend a Thursday morning trip. I've done that, too, and it's positively refreshing compared to a Wednesday trip -- which I now would do almost anything to avoid.

But I hope travelers considering this will keep in mind the potential consequences of cutting things so close on the holiday. They'd want to keep the trip to a reasonable range -- say, four hours driving? And would want to be checking the weather forecasts several days out. Also, I hope they won't have to leave after Thanksgiving dinner for the return home.

Still, I think this can be a good bet for people with children, who otherwise would leave right after school lets out on Wednesday.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | November 9, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Cars are so last century. Take the train or bike. If you can't, you are the enemy.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | November 9, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I would add one tip to the Bay Bridge/Delaware route: When you take DE-896, you'll come to the light at US-13 and find that there is an interchange with DE-1 just past this light. Rather than using that interchange, turn left onto northbound US-13 (there are two left turn lanes--one left-only and one left-or-straight) and drive 2.6 miles. You'll see a left-hand exit for DE-1. Use that.

The reason for doing this is that it lets you avoid the Biddles Toll Plaza. The toll is only $1.00, and normally I'm not big on worrying about avoiding tollbooths (especially ones with high-speed E-ZPass lanes like this one), but this one is so easy to avoid that it seems silly not to do so. Putting a tollbooth where it's so easily avoided seems sort of like giving the middle finger to non-local drivers (since locals will know how to avoid it)--come to think of it, much like the notorious Delaware Turnpike tollbooth!

When you are coming south, you can accomplish a similar bypass by using Exit 148, going right at the bottom of the ramp, and then going right again onto US-13. There are no tolls on DE-1 north of the Biddles Toll Plaza, which is a mainline barrier of the sort you see on the Garden State Parkway.

On another note, it's funny to me to see people saying that Thursday traffic is the lightest. I've lived in the DC area since 1974, and in the 1970s and 1980s we used to drive to Brooklyn for Thanksgiving weekend. We originally went on Thursday until the traffic got so bad (a drive that normally took 3.5 hours was taking 8 hours) that we started going on Wednesday night. By the mid-1980s that got so bad (arriving well after midnight despite leaving at 8:30 PM or so) that we finally said "Y'all can come visit us in Virginia." That happened twice and then the relatives said, "This traffic stinks. Let's all just say 'Happy Thanksgiving' by telephone instead."

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 9, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

That Christiana Parkway route around the Delaware Turnpike booths is a time- and money-saver. If the traffic is really bad, rather than turn on 896 you can stay on it (Del. 4) until you get to Del. 273 and take that back to I-95. This is a particularly good workaround coming south, where on a bad day traffic can back up from the booths past the exit for Del. 896. Just make sure the Fightin' Blue Hens don't have a football game when you're going through there...

Posted by: ValleyCaps | November 9, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

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