What's best Christmas route south?
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I plan on driving south to Columbia, S.C., on the 23rd for the holidays (leaving 8-9 a.m.). I haven't left this late because I was a student, so I'm not sure what to expect. How bad does I-95 get before Christmas? I'm thinking of taking I-81 to I-77 to bypass 95 just in case. What would you recommend?
The Christmas getaway is a lot more difficult to predict than the Thanksgiving exodus, but here are a few thoughts, which I hope will be supplemented by the comments of other travelers.
Thursday, Dec. 23, is likely to be the big getaway day of this week, since so many people, including federal employees, are off on Christmas Eve. But it shouldn't be as bad as departing the D.C. area on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. At Christmas time, the traffic is a lot more spread out.
Leaving between 8 and 9 a.m. puts a driver in the middle of rush hour traffic, as well as holiday traffic. Also, if you're just trying to escape the region on Thursday, try to avoid roads around malls, where people will be doing their desperate last-minute shopping. (Same timing thought about 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursday. The escapees and the commuters will be fighting over the same lane space. Though again, this shouldn't be as bad as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.)
Even if you leave the D.C. area before our morning rush, you're almost certain to experience someone's rush period on a day-long drive. Consider that if you have the option of taking a wide loop around a big city.
The trip south from the D.C. region should be a little easier because the new fourth lane on I-95 is open between the Fairfax County Parkway and Route 1. Still, you'll be sharing those lanes with people getting a jump on a Florida holiday.
The next obstacle is likely to be congestion in the Richmond area. We sometimes debate whether it's better to plow on through with I-95, the more direct route, or swing wider and get onto I-295 around Richmond and Petersburg. I'd take I-295. It's just a few miles longer than the I-95 route, and you avoid the potential congestion downtown.
While I have recommended getaway routes that include I-81 for trips to the west and south, I'm not sure I'd do it for a trip to a city, like Columbia, that's relatively close to I-95. (The last leg from I-95 would be on I-20, from Florence to Columbia.) It's not that many extra miles, but travelers often complain to me about the truck traffic on I-81 and many don't feel comfortable with the highway safety in the Roanoke region.
Stay in touch with the weather forecast, but right now, it's looking pretty good for Thursday travel. The Capital Weather Gang is keeping an eye on prospects for an East Coast winter storm over the weekend.
While driving south in Virginia, where the traffic volumes are likely to be greatest on Thursday, you can use Virginia's 511 information system. Dial 511 within the state and use the prompts to get traffic updates. The Virginia system also puts out frequent updates on Twitter. This is the link for Northern Virginia travel updates. This is the one for the I-95 corridor in Virginia. (Let your passenger check that while you're driving.)
Join me at noon today for an online chat in which we can discuss getaway issues or any of your other local travel concerns.
| December 20, 2010; 10:55 AM ET
Categories: Driving, Getaways | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, travel tips
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