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Posted at 7:30 AM ET, 12/14/2010

Tips for December getaways

By Robert Thomson

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
You have often recommended the well-used alternative route to points northeast using I-83 to I-81 to I-78 through the Harrisburg, Pa., area and on to New Jersey, picking up I-287 through to the Tappan Zee Bridge, if desired.

I've used that route many times and much prefer it to I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike. A note of caution for those traveling toward Harrisburg using either I-270 to Route 15 near Frederick or Northern Virginia drivers who pick up Route 15 earlier in the Leesburg area: As they approach Harrisburg, they need to carefully watch for and take Route 581 near Camp Hill, Pa., a short, but necessary connector to I-83. That part of Route 15 is under heavy road construction, and the connector road can easily be missed.
Harvey Hamel, Ashburn

DG: Thanks for the advice. I sense that travelers in the D.C. area are becoming increasingly interested in what Pennsylvania offers as an alternative to I-95 as they make their plans for December holiday getaways. If they already are veterans of Thanksgiving Getaway 2010, then they know how difficult it is this year to get through the I-95 toll plaza at Newark, Del.

There may be a getaway boomlet this Friday afternoon, for those who are on vacation the week before Christmas. That should be followed by a bigger getaway on the evening of Thursday, Dec. 23, since so many people have Christmas Eve as a holiday, but must wait till the kids get out of school.

Because people spread out their December getaways, it's unlikely drivers will encounter traffic as bad as what they saw around Thanksgiving. Still, we did get some useful reports from the Thanksgiving crowd.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
We had hoped to beat the mob to the Newark Toll Plaza this Thanksgiving morning, but no luck: a three-mile backup at 9:15 a.m. We went for your local street recommendation and scored! Ten minutes later and having saved a few bucks, we were back on I-95 driving at the speed limit.
Daphne Trotter, The District

Travelers most often recommend either of these routes around the toll plaza:
1) 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.

2) From I-95 north, 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. Some readers have told me this is a better route than the first, because it avoids local streets.

Bigger swings
This is what Hamel is talking about: a bigger swing that avoids either most or all of the Delaware hassle.

There's a southerly route that goes like this: Head east on 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 to the New Jersey Turnpike or I-295 in New Jersey.

The Pennsylvania swing: Baltimore-Washington Parkway to I-695 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. There, drivers can take I-287 and cross the Hudson River at the Tappan Zee Bridge. Or they can take the New Jersey Turnpike north to the George Washington Bridge, or stay on I-78 east to reach the Holland Tunnel.

Or for those starting from farther west in the D.C. region: Pick up northbound Route 15, which goes through Leesburg and Frederick, and drive to the Harrisburg area, where you can link to Interstates 76, 81 and 78 -- while noting Hamel's words about Route 581 as the connector to the Interstates.

Route 15 drivers, note that the Maryland State Highway Administration has removed the speed camera from the work zone north of Frederick, because the work zone was lifted. (Though that's no excuse to speed through Frederick.) BW Parkway drivers, note that there's a new speed camera in the work zone just south of Interstate 695 (the Baltimore Beltway) in Anne Arundel County, where the speed limit is 55 mph.

Metro overnight parking
During my online chat Monday, a traveler who plans to take Amtrak from Union Station this weekend asked about overnight parking at Metro stations.

There are only three Metro stations where you're officially allowed to park overnight in designated areas. These are: Level 1J at Franconia-Springfield Station, the lower level of the Huntington Station garage and the Cherrywood Lane side at Greenbelt Station.

Your not supposed to park outside those zones for more than 24 hours. But will you get a ticket? It depends partly on how efficient the parking staff is at getting around and noting the cars that are still parked at the end of the day. Also, parking is free at Metro lots and garages on weekends and federal holidays. You might get away with parking for several days outside the three designated areas. Or not.

By Robert Thomson  | December 14, 2010; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  Getaways  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, travel tips  
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Regarding Mr. Hamel's point: I'd suggest that if you come up US-15 to Harrisburg, it's a bit faster to take PA-581 around the western side of Harrisburg directly to I-81, rather than connecting to I-83 and looping around the east side (unless, of course, you're heading someplace local like Hershey). A map may make this look counterintuitive in that going slightly west seems like you're going the "wrong way," but it's a bit faster because PA-581 is a better and newer road and does not require you to pass through the convoluted interchange of I-83, I-283, and US-322.

Regarding overnight parking for Amtrak (I missed yesterday's chat and could not offer this then): If you're considering driving to the Metro, why not just drive to Union Station and park in the garage there? Yes, it's slightly pricey, and the garage is a bit dark, but it's a busy place and you need not worry about time limits on parking. (I guess you could also drive to BWI, park, and take their bus, if that is more convenient, but I believe this involves taking two buses--one from the car park to the terminal and then another from the terminal to the train station.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 14, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I know people who have parked at New Carrollton and taken Amtrak, leaving their car for 1 or 2 nights. They have never had a problem with that before.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | December 14, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

i go up 15 almost every other weekend, 15 n to 581 w, to 81 n. it's very quick. i have been doing that for 15 years. but, even that way is starting to get crowded these days (esp during the day). maybe we should stop talking about it, k?

Posted by: FormerUpstater | December 14, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

I concur with FormerUpstater and 1995hoo regarding the 15N - 581W - 81N route around Harrisburg. This avoids two congested interchanges at I-83/PA-581 and I-83/US-322/I-283. If you're going into New England or up towards Albany, NY, consider staying on I-81 to I-84. I live in Allentown, PA, and I-78 can get congested at peak travel times as well.

Posted by: Richard-in-PA | December 15, 2010 7:09 AM | Report abuse

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