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Posted at 10:55 AM ET, 12/20/2010

What's best Christmas route south?

By Robert Thomson

Holiday getaway guide | Travel tips l Capital Weather Gang

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?
Rachel Dolan

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.

By Robert Thomson  | December 20, 2010; 10:55 AM ET
Categories:  Driving, Getaways  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, travel tips  
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There is a megabus broken down outside of DC. It is on Baltimore Washington Parkway at Landover Rd. It has been sitting there for over an hour and a half. With NO heat and all of the passengers are freezing on it. Megabus has not given any indication on how long they will be there. It's on the Baltimore Washington Parkway by the Howard Johnson just across the DC line.

Posted by: gpettit | December 20, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

If you're on the bus and have an emergency, call 911.

If you're on the bw parkway you might get quicker service if you call the US Park Police - 202-610-7500.

Posted by: yell53 | December 20, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

If you have the time and patience to stroll thru the traffic on I-95 then do it. You have to consider the factors in the area. Gas prices, frustration, police on the road and condition of your transportation. But to drive out of the way to getaway from the traffic? Gridlock, what are you thinking? Quick fact here, consider leaving earlier. Most truck traffic (18 wheelers) are on the side of the road asleep. (8-10 hrs. DOT rules) Drive 301 across the Potomac River bridge into Virginia(toll)back on to I-95. I'm saying adjust your plans accordingly. Driving out to I-81 via I-66 is ridiculous, if not misleading! A much longer ride to Columbia, SC.(I-66 west, I-81 South, I-77 south, around 277 or I-20 west to your exit home) Unless you are from the area, don't give advise you don't know about! If you are a college student whose never drove on I-81 period, it is a dangerous road for the unskilled driver! Stick with the road you know(I-95)its shorter and speed limits are generally 70 mph thru certain parts of Va, NC and SC. The traffic in/around Richmond, pick your poison. Longer to travel on I-295 or straight thru (less miles). Remember this, there are ways to get to Columbia and further. For me, I calculate from the 14 street bridge 189 miles thru Virginia, 182 mls. in NC, 32 mls. in SC to I-20W and 75 mls. to Columbia. Dr. Gridlock, if you say you are a Road man, please give it up! 34 yrs driving both coasts from Vancouver to San Diego, Boston to Miami and all stops between. The best advice is to drive accordingly to the conditions you are comfortable with. There are traffic jams everywhere. Drive with care!

Posted by: wardtony1 | December 21, 2010 5:25 AM | Report abuse

It was clearly stated that 81 was longer and unsafe, read before you rage.

Posted by: kdali | December 22, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

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