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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 11/23/2010

Your Thanksgiving getaway questions

By Robert Thomson

Getaway guide | Travel tips l Capital Weather Gang l AAA chat

My online chat Monday drew dozens of questions and comments about the Thanksgiving getaway. These are some I didn't get a chance to address then.

Give it to me straight, doc. i can take it.
DC to Boston, in the car, on Wednesday. (I KNOW! But it was the only option.) I've noted your detour around the Newark toll plaza, and carefully planned a wide berth around the George Washington Bridge and the Cross-Bronx in the hope that the Palisades and the Tappan Zee will be faster (I know they'll be pleasanter to be stuck in, assuming I do get stuck).

My question is this: how long, realistically, should I expect this drive to take? It's normally about seven and a half hours; on Wednesday do you think I can get there in less than twelve? Will it be better if I get going before it even gets light out?

DG: I'm thinking add three hours to the normal trip time to Boston. But let me state this as a theme: It's impossible to predict how long a local trip, a trip to the airport or a long-distance trip will take on Wednesday and Sunday of Thanksgiving week. The traffic volumes will be huge. The December holidays have bad travel times, but they're nothing like Thanksgiving week, when people compress their getaway and return into a relatively short time. One fender-bender, one police car or emergency truck with lights flashing, one truck with a wide load can slow travel to crawl.

That said, I want to re-emphasize the significance of the delays expected at the Newark Toll Plaza, the one you hit on I-95 as you enter Delaware while heading north. See my posting about Thanksgiving's biggest bottleneck.

If I were going from here to Boston on Wednesday, I'd get out of here before 6 a.m., but understand that on a trip that long, I'm going to encounter somebody's rush hour somewhere. Given the warnings about Delaware and the fact that the destination is Boston, I'd do a wide swing to the north, taking the Baltimore Beltway to I-83 and connecting with I-81 around Harrisburg, Pa., and then I-78 to I-287. That would keep me away from the immediate New York City area.

I-287 would lead me up to the New York Thruway and across the Hudson at the Tappan Zee Bridge. I-287 across the bridge and through Westchester County, N.Y., can be difficult. There's a lot of traffic and a lot of construction around White Plains. But the Grid Spouse wouldn't let me add the miles it would take to go north on the Thruway all the way up to Newburgh, N.Y., where I'd cross the Hudson on I-84.

So instead, I'd drive through that White Plains bottleneck and pick up I-684 north, and head east on I-84 at Brewster. (In other seasons, I might just stay on I-287 across Weschester and pick up I-95 for the trip through New England, but on Wednesday, I'd really want to avoid 95 through Connecticut -- and especially the perennial bottleneck at New Haven.

Still, on my more northerly excursion, there would likely be traffic around Danbury, Conn., then again at Hartford, Conn., and again at Sturbridge, Ma., where I'd go through the toll plaza for the Massachusetts Turnpike and Boston.

Driving north
Hi, Like many, I'll be heading up to the NYC metro area this week. I need to leave Tuesday after 5 p.m. (I know, I know). I've heard how bad the delays around the Delaware toll plaza are supposed to be and am considering a route through Harrisburg, PA instead. Think that'll be any better? Other suggestions?

DG: Yes, for the reasons stated above, I think the Harrisburg route is likely to be better, even though it adds mileage. Tuesday night is definitely better than Wednesday night. I'd wait as long after 5 p.m. as you feel comfortable with. While I often recommend late-night trips during peak travel seasons, there's an important thing to consider: You've got to stay awake. If you travel at times your body tells you that you should be asleep, there are going to be issues.

[Update: Frequent commenter 1995hoo suggested I point out to returning travelers on Sunday that the Redskins have a 1 p.m. game at FedEx Field just off the Capital Landover. Even under normal circumstances that would crowd the eastern side of the Beltway, especially around the Landover Road, Arena Drive and Central Avenue exits. Long-distance travelers returning from Thanksgiving along I-95 would be better off swinging west when they reach the Beltway and crossing over the Legion Bridge.]

Baltimore to Fairfax County
I have to make the drive from Baltimore to Centreville in western Fairfax County Wednesday afternoon what is the best way to do so? Is I-70 west to Fredrick and then 15 south the best way to go? I assume it will be good to avoid 95 and the Capital Beltway if I can.

DG: One of the reasons Wednesday afternoon is so bad is that you're driving in a combination of getaway traffic and regular commuter traffic. While we all say that timing is more important than route, some people -- including families with school children -- just don't have the flexibility to make a midnight escape on Tuesday night.

On the Baltimore-Centreville trip, there's no good route to recommend on Wednesday afternoon. I'm not sure there's much to be gained by that wide swing to the west, since I-70 is likely to be crowded, and there's bound to be heavy traffic at the junctions in Frederick.

Still, as the commenter noted, there's also bound to be heavy traffic on I-95 and the Capital Beltway. Two points of especially heavy congestion will be the I-95/Beltway interchange and the Beltway/I-270 interchange. Traffic heading for Virginia on the Beltway's outer loop will want to stay as far left as possible. The right two lanes are likely to be jammed with cars lining up for I-270.

Here's one variation: Start from Baltimore on I-95 south, but get off at Route 100 and head west to pick up Route 29, also known as I-95 Lite, and head south to the Beltway. This wouldn't be trouble free: You'd likely encounter congestion in the right lane in the Four Corners area as other drivers also prepare to enter the Beltway's outer loop.

I-66 Wednesday travel
Hi Dr. Gridlock, We're headed to Luray on Wednesday. We can leave any time. What would you suggest to minimize delays? Should we avoid I-66 altogether? We typically travel through Front Royal rather than go over the mountain. Thanks very much for your guidance! Best, The O'Brien's

DG: If you could leave real early on Wednesday -- getting started even before the morning rush, if possible -- then I think you'd be fine on I-66. Later in the day, it's going to be awful westbound, especially around the Capital Beltway and then after Gainesville, where it narrows to two lanes in each direction.

Some people like to get off I-66 at Gainesville and pick up Routes 29 and 15. Then they pick up Route 211 in Warrenton. They stay on 211 through Sperryville and across the mountains to Luray. It's a pretty trip, but I haven't done it at holiday times.

Early holiday travel
I plan on leaving the Arlington area headed for Long Island, NY, on Tuesday night. Should I anticipate other early holiday travelers on the road at, say, 8 p.m. also?

DG: Absolutely. The holiday getaway already has begun. But you'll be better off on Tuesday night than on Wednesday afternoon and evening. If you can leave Arlington at 8 p.m. or later, you should be okay, even if you take the standard route of I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike. ("Okay" doesn't mean congestion free, especially around the Newark Toll Plaza.)

Best route to I-70?
Any suggestions for an alternate route to I-70 W? My family is in northeast Ohio and I take 270 N out of the city. It's usually not too terrible, but as I'm crawling towards Frederick I start to wonder if the back roads are any faster.

DG: "Back roads" isn't a term we hear much in the D.C. suburbs. You could try Route 355, also know as Rockville Pike or North Frederick Road or the Urbana Pike, depending on what part of it you are on. That's basically parallel and near to I-270. Closer to the Potomac River, there's Route 28 to Route 15. But pretty much everybody is going to wind up in Frederick to make connections with I-70, and as you note, that area is going to be crowded.

Advice for airports (esp. BWI) on Weds?
Friends and family are all discussing how much time we need to leave to get to and through BWI on Wednesday night. Is being at the airport three hours before departure reasonable? too much? too little? Will the hourly and daily lots at BWI be full on Wednesday? Will 95 be smooth between DC and BWI Wednesday afternoon? We promise we won't blame you if we miss the flight, but your view on what's reasonable to expect would be welcome!

DG: Thanks, because anything I say now can turn out to be wrong by the time you actually do it. With that in mind, I would indeed plan on getting to the airport three hours before flight time. BWI has gotten much more efficient on ticketing and screening over the past two years, but at the holidays, you've got lots of inexperienced air travelers to slow things down.

Don't anticipate a smooth trip on I-95 on Wednesday night. Most airport-bound drivers will get off I-95 at I-195. If it's stop-and-go for you on I-95 after Laurel, you could bail out sooner -- at Route 32 or Route 100 -- and pick up the Baltimore Washington Parkway northbound to complete the trip to the airport.

Reagan National is the local airport where parking has the greatest tendency to get scarce at the holidays. When we're leaving from BWI on shortish trips, we like to park at the Daily Garage. It's more expensive than the long-term satellite lots, but it's a shorter bus ride to the terminal, and it has those nice green and red lights along the parking aisles to tell you where space is available.

Very helpful: The BWI Twitter site. It has frequent updates on parking availability for BWI.

Flying on Wednesday- eeeek!
I'm flying out of DCA on Wednesday evening (first time flying at Thanksgiving in years). Planning to check-in online and take a carry-on. How early do I need to get to the airport? I was thinking two hours should be plenty of time to get through security, but I'm starting to get nervous about the planned scan boycott.

DG: See what The Post's Derek Kravitz says about dealing with Thanksgiving airport security. (Kravitz also notes that more than 1,400 parking spaces were added to the daily parking garages at National this year.) Also see Michael Bolden's posting on what to expect from TSA screening.

I don't like the intrusive pat-downs. (Is the government really telling us there's no other way to secure these flights than to grab our private parts?) But I don't support the notion of a boycott. That would just hurt too many innocent travelers who want only to get home for the holiday.

But I think that scanner boycott efforts are likely to be less of an issue for you at National than the simple fact that you'll be in the security line with many travelers who fly only at the holidays and don't know the rules about carrying liquids. Still, I think your plan for being on line with your carry-on two hours before flight time should work out.

By Robert Thomson  | November 23, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  Airports, Driving, Getaways  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, travel tips  
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Let me also add to the guy driving to Boston that the stretch of 84 between the NY border and Danbury can be extremely dark and poorly marked lanes, especailly in the rain and at night. To the extent he can, he should get there before sundown or expect further delays.

The Tappan Zee has gotten better since they took the construction plates/speed bumps out of the road.

For what its worth, my route to the Hartford area is one of two: The straight line through Manhattan, which is trafficy and confusing if you don't know where you're going, or the wide berth (essentially Delaware avoidance) up 83 and across into NJ on 78 before picking up the Pallisades. After years of trying the intermediate Garden State Parkway route, I've decided that that route is the worst of both worlds: longer than the NYC/95, but no less subject to traffic congestion.

Posted by: oldtimehockey | November 23, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

What exit would you take off the NJ turnpike to reach the pallisades and does that take you over the Tappan Zee?
Thanks for the info

Posted by: tom48va | November 23, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

For the person driving to Boston, I'd suggest not taking either I-84 (until you reach Hartford) or I-95 in Connecticut. Instead, I suggest taking the Merritt Parkway/Wilbur Cross Parkway combination (the road changes names, but it's all the same road). It dumps you into I-91 between New Haven and Hartford and you just follow I-91 north to the Hartford area. Then watch for the signs showing the route to I-84. In my experience, I-84 east of Hartford is a much better road than the portion through Danbury and Waterbury. The Merritt/Wilbur Cross route is a scenic road with no trucks, so it's a bit of a more relaxing respite from the rat-race aspects of the Northeast Corridor. Take a look at a map and you'll see it largely parallels I-95 (the old Connecticut Turnpike), but it carries less traffic and has fewer exits.

To answer "tom48va," you ought to look at a map regarding how to reach the Palisades Parkway if you're coming from the New Jersey Turnpike. Most drivers would use I-95 to Fort Lee and then follow the signs (note: make sure you use the LOCAL lanes). The problem with that route is that you'll get stuck in the backup for the GW Bridge toll plazas. An alternate route would be to take the exit just north of the Vince Lombardi service area for US-46 and US-1/9; I forget the exit number, but I believe the sign says "The Ridgefields." Follow US-46 east and it will meet US-1/9 a short ways down the road. Then continue north/east on that to Fort Lee and follow the signs for the Palisades Parkway. You'll still get bridge traffic, but it won't be as bad because the majority of drivers tend to stick with the Interstate.

I have to say that you're better off avoiding the New Jersey Turnpike altogether, though. As Dr. Gridlock suggests, use the I-78 route and then take I-287 north to the Thruway. You'd miss the scenery along the Palisades, but you'd also encounter less traffic because the majority of East Coast drivers don't know any route other than the New Jersey Turnpike.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 23, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Thanks 1995hoo for the advice think i will try the 695/83/81/78/287/Merritt

Posted by: tom48va | November 23, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Like 1995hoo, I enjoy driving on the Merritt Parkway. Here's a concern, and I wonder if hoo would weigh in on this.

The Merritt is one of the oldest parkways. It's beautiful country and a fun drive. But for much of the way, it's two lanes in each direction. Many of the entrance ramps are quite short. So entering traffic necessarily comes in very slowly. That causes congestion in the right lane. Many drivers will pull into the left lane as the slowdown develops, which has the effect of slowing traffic in the left lane as well.

At this time of year, though, I'd rather be stuck on the Merritt than on I-95 through Connecticut.

Posted by: Dr_Gridlock | November 23, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

You have several choices from the NJ Turnpike to the Tappen Zee. If you are willing to trade distance for traffic that moves a little better, take the I-287 exit which is just before the Garden State exit. It is a good deal farther, but it tends to keep moving. I agree with what oldtimehockey said about the Garden State vs. continuing on I-95 to the Palisades - if you're in NY metro traffic, you're in it - might as well go the shorter route. Stay out of it during an elongated afternoon rush (take a long dinner break) and you may be okay.

Posted by: jcflack1 | November 23, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock, I thought about the issue you noted when I was typing my post, and in fact it occurs to me that the problem might be a bit worse than you mention because a lot of the on-ramps have STOP SIGNS at the merge point, rather than the more common yield signs. As you note, that's because it's an old road. But I also thought that on balance, I'd rather be moving a bit more slowly on the Merritt than not moving at all on the Connecticut Turnpike. It's sort of like jumping off I-395 for Beauregard Street in the morning: Time-wise, it's not always clear whether it's faster, but to me it FEELS faster if you're moving steadily (even at a slower speed) than it does if the only way the car is moving is because you're slowly letting the clutch out in stop-and-roll traffic.

The one thing that does present some concern in my mind would be the risk that if there's a wreck on the Merritt, it can be harder to escape than if you're on I-95 or I-84, simply because there are fewer exits and fewer lanes. No shoulders for much of the route, either. It's also valid to consider that while there is no commercial traffic on the Merritt, some drivers react to the break from trucks by going a little bit crazy. (Consider how the worst wrecks on the New Jersey Turnpike always seem to happen in the "Cars Only" lanes. I always use "Cars-Trucks-Buses" if I'm in that area, and it usually proves faster.) But you run a risk of crashes and backups on whatever route you take. My feeling is that on the whole, my blood pressure tends to be a lot lower on the Merritt than it is on I-95 or I-84, even if it's maybe not moving at the speed limit, and after putting up with the New York area and White Plains, having that respite from high blood pressure is a good thing!

Last time I was on the Merritt I was coming south from Portland and we got stuck for a short time near the spot where it changes from the Wilbur Cross (near Milford). A tractor-trailer had illegally entered the road and was stopped in the right lane when he realized he couldn't fit under the overpasses. A cop was there ripping him a new you-know-what. That slowed the traffic a good bit because we all had to choke down to the one lane and everyone had to gawk (and, this being the Northeast, plenty of people appeared to be yelling profanities as they passed). Thankfully, though, that sort of thing is rare in my experience.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 23, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Or, stop killing the planet and don't drive anywhere.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | November 23, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

I never recommend the Merritt at night to people who haven't driven it. No lights, no shoulder, no merge lanes, tight exit ramps and an average speed of 70 mph. It's a roller coaster with no safety net. The one advantage is that no police officer will pull you over because whatever you are doing is less dangerous than being stopped on there.

Posted by: kim6160 | November 23, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: 1995hoo, thanks for the further description of conditions on the Merritt/Wilbur Cross, and I had forgotten about the stop signs on some of those too-short entrance ramps.

Your mention of the car-truck lanes on the NJ Turnpike reminded me of a suggestion I wanted to make for drivers returning southbound this weekend on the Turnpike. I also like to stay in the car-truck lanes, rather than the car-only lanes. On most weekends, there aren't that many trucks. And I find it easier to blend in from the car-truck lanes at the point where the separate roadways merge back to one.

Posted by: Dr_Gridlock | November 23, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

For Baltimore-Centreville, why not I-70 to I-81 to I-66? Too far out of the way?

Living in Falls Church when I head west I take 66 to 81 to 70. Or sometimes Rt7 to 81 to 70.

Posted by: wiredog | November 23, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Wife and I unfortunately have to work Wednesday and are heading to NY for Thanksgiving. Are we better off late late wednesday evening (9pm start) or very early Thursday morning (3-4 am start)?

Posted by: JG55 | November 23, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Wife and I unfortunately have to work Wednesday and are heading to NY for Thanksgiving. Are we better off late late wednesday evening (9pm start) or very early Thursday morning (3-4 am start)?

Posted by: JG55 | November 23, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: JG55, I think an early start on Thursday might work best. Generally, I've been recommending that if people can't leave before Wednesday, then waiting till Thursday should work -- unless they've got a 12 hour drive ahead of them.

But note this: The Delaware Department of Transportation has been putting out alerts saying that even from mid-morning to late afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, it expects congestion at the Newark Toll Plaza on I-95. So your idea of starting at 3 or 4 a.m. sounds prudent.

The other thing, of course: Keep track of the weather forecast, so you can make last-minute adjustments.

Posted by: Dr_Gridlock | November 23, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

I just went over to Old Town to pick up the turkey at Balducci's and I noted that Bob Marbourg's traffic reports on WTOP included updates on the JFK Highway (I-95 north of Baltimore) and the Delaware toll plaza. I'm not normally a huge fan of his reports (I find his sentences to be very long and hard to follow), but I think he deserves credit for including that info. Hopefully the other reporters (Ashley Linder, Lisa Baden, etc.) will continue to provide that information for those people foolish enough to use that road.

FWIW, I went through the streets going over to Old Town but took the Inner Loop back. Beltway was slow in both directions through the work zone. Inner Loop cleared up at Eisenhower, Outer Loop at the LOCAL/THRU split. But I noted on the Inner Loop that there is a "This Lane Ends" sign for the right lane as the Beltway crosses Eisenhower, yet the lane does not end. That could make for some messy and unnecessary lane-changing on Sunday with the out-of-towners coming through. I think I shall submit a comment to VDOT....

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 23, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Thanks everyone. I've printed out the 83-81-287-etc. directions to bring along next to my original Palisades directions. I'll try to remember to check in tomorrow night and let you know how long the trip took. :-) (signed, Give It To Me Straight)

Posted by: walkleftstandright | November 23, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: wiredog, I'm thinking that for Baltimore-Centreville, I-70 west to I-81 to I-66 may indeed be too far out. Any of these routes we're talking about are tough to predict for our Wednesday drivers. (And most of them won't know whether our suggestions included the best route, since they won't know how bad it was on the other routes.)

But my fear for the I-70/81/66 route is that it will add a lot of miles without a great gain in traffic flow on Wednesday afternoon.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | November 23, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

To those traveling up into NYC and NE I'd recommend the following for traffic reports:

880am - Northern Jersey, NYC, CT traffic on the 8's

1010am - Northern Jersey, NYC, CT traffic on the 1's

511 - dial that on your cell phone and follow the prompts for New Jersey traffic

Also, if you're headed up 84 the stretch from the New York/CT state line to the other side of Waterbury can get very congested.

Good luck to all!

Posted by: chass80 | November 23, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

My number 1 tip for those who drive I-95 up to NYC and over the GW Bridge:

Do NOT, and I'll repeat it again, DO NOT use the Express Lanes on I-95 between I-80 and the Bridge. Everyone thinks express = does not, it means "thru" (to say it in VDOT/MDSHA terms), for thru traffic with limited options to exit. That means once you are in, you are stuck, sometimes for an hour or more in the northbound, while the Local lanes have far less traffic. Same applies going south, where express traffic has to exit onto a single lane ramp onto the NJ Turnpike while the local lanes have a 2-lane "split" onto the Turnpike.

Keep in mind that the GW Bridge, during overnight hours (11 PM to 7 AM on weekends and holidays), you have to use the Upper Level inbound to NYC if you pay the toll in cash. The entire Lower Level and the Palisades Parkway approach to the Upper Level are E-ZPass Only during those hours. You can get to the Upper Level from the Local lanes...the signs say to use the Express and for Lower Level traffic to use the Local lanes, but in reality, the Express only leads to the Upper Level and Local leads to both levels.

The Lower Level is almost always faster than the Upper, because all the big trucks have to use the Upper. But keep in mind, you do not have the option to use the Lower level inbound to NYC overnight if you pay the toll in cash.

Good luck out there. Thetan will be taking the train to NYC.

Posted by: thetan | November 23, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock - Late to the party, but my wife and I have to work on wednesday and then planning to go to Newark, DE. What's the best possible route - I am thinking 29 and US 40? Any other suggestions?
As far as the Merritt Pkwy is concerned, I think it's now called CT15 and for first-timers, I will not suggest driving at night especially if it's going to be foggy/rainy as the forecast suggests.

Posted by: twoomph | November 23, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

"twoomph," one warning about US-40 in Maryland: The Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna is under construction and is narrowed from two lanes to one, which may cause delays with bailout traffic from I-95. I think if you're heading to Newark, you might want to use the Bay Bridge-->US-301 route.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 23, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Thanks 1995hoo

Posted by: twoomph | November 24, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

This is to report that the 83-81-287 route got me from DC to Boston in 10.5 hours, with a long leg-stretching break for lunch in the middle (like an hour, seriously; and also a combined half-hour or so to get coffee first thing and fill up the car somewhere in New Jersey). So about 9.5 hours of driving - only about two hours more than the trip normally takes, and every minute of the extra was in accident-related backups in Connecticut. Thanks for the advice, all!

Posted by: walkleftstandright | November 25, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

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