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Seeking Holiday Travel Tips

I've gotten so many good suggestions on detours and alternative routes for those who travel north on I-95, that I thought I'd package them into an advice column for holiday travelers this month.

Most of my holiday trips take me to New Jersey, New York and New England, and readers had plenty of advice for dodging stretches of I-95 or ditching it completely for the sake of less traveled and less tolled highways. But I'm wondering if some of you might have suggestions for people traveling to the west and south, as well.

What should Washingtonians know if they're headed out I-70 or 81? Or traveling south on I-95? My plan is to try packing a lot of information into an upcoming Dr. Gridlock column on Sunday, Nov. 12, in time for Thanksgiving planning.

By Robert Thomson  |  November 1, 2006; 6:32 AM ET
Categories:  holiday travel  
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Next: Major Roadwork This Weekend


Instead of taking 395 or 95 from Springfield or Fairfax south pick up 95 at Rt 610 in Stafford. Take Rt 28 south to Catlett turn left on Elk Run continue on Elk Run till you get to the town of Bristersburg. About 10 miles turn left on Bristersburg Rd go approx 6 miles and turn left on Rt 610 and follow it to 95. Only potential slowdown is on Rt 28 between Rt 234 and the golf course for road contruction.

Posted by: vaherder | November 1, 2006 7:07 AM | Report abuse

If you're headed north/northwest towards the PA Turnpike for Thanksgiving, I don't have an alternate route, but just an alternate time. Leave very early on Thanksgiving morning because no matter which way you go, Wednesday traffic will be awful. I've been doing it for years and it is wonderful.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 1, 2006 8:12 AM | Report abuse

For those using the Pa Tpke, check out their web site first for information about construction or obstructions. ( You can have traffic information e-mailed to you by signing up to be a Preferred Traveler

Posted by: Historian | November 1, 2006 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Alternate to Northern New England or Albany, NY area is to go to Harrisburg, PA, then take I-81 to I-88 to Albany, or take I-81 to I-78 to I-287 in NJ to the New York Throughway. The downside is that finding gas stations and rest rooms quickly can be a problem. Much of I-95 has them at rest areas right along the highway.

Posted by: Steve | November 1, 2006 9:30 AM | Report abuse

If you going south from the city or points east, consider taking 301 south and linking up with 95 below Fredericksburg.

Posted by: Woodbridge Va | November 1, 2006 9:47 AM | Report abuse

If you want to avoid the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you can take I-68 west from Hancock, Maryland, to Morgantown, West Virginia, where it ends at I-79, and then go north to either I-70 near Washington or I-76 (the Turnpike) near Pittsburgh. You can't get away with going as fast as you can on the Turnpike, but there's usually less traffic and far fewer trucks. (The 70 mph speed limit in West Virginia doesn't make much difference because nobody goes that slowly anyway.) I-68 is a more scenic drive, too, in my opinion.

As far as getting to Hancock goes, if you don't want to do the conventional I-270 to I-70 route, you can take the Dulles Toll Road and Greenway out to Leesburg and then go west on VA-7 to Winchester, or you can go west on US-50 to Winchester. You could even do I-66 west to I-81, but I've found that route to be significantly longer distance-wise. From Winchester, you then have the choice of going north on I-81 to I-70 or taking US-522 to Hancock. US-522 is more direct but has traffic lights and passes through some small towns with low speed limits. On the other hand, you avoid the trucks and left-lane hogs on I-81.

Posted by: Rich | November 1, 2006 10:42 AM | Report abuse

To go east, ironically, 6pm on Wed. may very well be the best time to do the Bay Bridge. On the big holiday Fridays this year, it seems like the bulk of the traffic has come early, after 8pm, or late, around 2pm. The exception to this is if there is a fog or wind warning on the bridge, and they don't do 2-way operations (that is, 3 lanes eastbound), then abandon hope, and expect a 10 mile backup.

To go West, take any of the local roads thru Montgomery County (97, 27, 355, or 28 to 85) up to I-70, then, as Rich said, grab I-68 out of Hancock. Much nicer road, unless you're going to some place like Johnstown, (between Breezewood and Pittsburgh) that is right off the turnpike.

To go north, stay off of I-83 between Baltimore and Harrisburg between 4-6pm, it's a very underrated bottleneck out of Baltimore, as are the approaches on the Baltimore Beltway.

To go northeast, on I-95, there are workarounds to both the Susquehenna ($5) toll and the Delaware ($3) tolls that will actually *save* time in heavy traffic.
For the former, take the Havre De Grace exit to US 40 East, make a left on 40, another left on 222 takes you right back to 95. Same toll, but beats the traffic, if there is a backup with through-travelers. In Delaware, there is a brutal construction zone between exit 1 and 3 that knocks 95 down to 2 lanes. Get off at Md. 279 North/West, make a right on DE 4, follow that across 896 to DE 273, and you miss both the toll and the construction zone. Farther north, if it's not the height of rush hour (and especially on Sunday) go thru Philadelphia on I-95, and use US 1 to NJ 18 to get back on the Turnpike well above the worst of the bottlenecks on the NJTP. You can also use I-195 at Trenton to get back to the Turnpike.

Posted by: Joe in SS | November 1, 2006 11:57 AM | Report abuse

For those heading out west via I-70, do NOT be so dillusional as to think that you can get away with simply putting in a half-day on the day before Thanksgiving and be able to get out of dodge as soon as your vehicle is loaded up with spouse, kids, dog and/or whatever else. Even if you make it out on the road by 1PM, you will be quite definitely S.O.L. as far as being stuck in all of the traffic. And it will be a painful excursion, with traffic snared well before Frederick and lingering well beyond Hagerstown. In my unfortunate experiences, the back-ups on I-70 heading west when I didn't leave town by 7AM have been substantial and didn't break loose until reaching Hancock. I have, however, not once experienced any significant problems on the road when I got out early in the morning.

As much as you'd long to do otherwise, be sure to leave early - 6/6:30/7AM - whether the day before or on the morning of Thanksgiving to ensure a more even-flowing trip, and to ensure you keep all those swear words you might use during a tough rush hour bottled up and away from your kids impressionable young ears.

If you can't avoid getting a later start, you'll probably have a hard time getting up to and through Frederick. But once you're there, you might consider using US-40 and/or other roads that parallel the interstate. Did that once around a major summer holiday and, if I didn't necessarily save oodles of time, at least I was generally able to keep the car moving and cut down on the wear and tear as well as the road rage.

Posted by: Pete | November 1, 2006 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Oh yeah, and as others have said, I-68 can be a decent alternative. In my experience though, most of the traffic problems I've experienced have dissipated a few miles before the exit for that interstate, so you'll see some relief on that road, but not tons of it. Also, I-68 is not necessarily the best road to be on if the weather is cold and wet/slushy/icy/snowy. A beautiful highway to be on, but for safety in adverse conditions, the PA turnpike (tolls and all) is a safer route for my money.

Best advice - know your route, but invest in a road atlas (and, uh, remember to bring it with you on the trip) and map out possible alternatives before you go in case you need to improvise and make a detour.

Posted by: Pete | November 1, 2006 12:13 PM | Report abuse

After my mother died several years ago (and my father passed away long ago), I decided I wasn't going to slog home to New England anymore for Thanksgiving. Instead, I go to the home of a nearby friend who opens her doors to friends who don't go away for Thanksgiving as well as to her extended family. I figure I'll see the rest of my extended family four weeks later anyway, so why burden myself and the environment with two road trips less than a month apart?

Yes, I know my choice isn't realistic for everyone, but I feel relieved that I don't have to choose between a 15-mile backup approaching the Tappan Zee Bridge or 60 miles' worth of extra driving through eastern Pennsylvania.

Posted by: Greenbelt Gal | November 1, 2006 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Back in 2001, it took me six hours to get from DC to Philadelphia on Thankgiving Wednesday. Nowadays, I leave at 7am on Thursdays and fly up there. This year, I won't be leaving until about 2pm on Thursday; anyone ever tried driving on Thanksgiving Thursday Afternoon?

Posted by: Dakota Pants | November 1, 2006 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Dakota Pants--We used to drive up to New York on Thanksgiving Day and we gave up because it took so long, often 8 hours. We finally told the relatives that they could come down to Virginia if they wanted. Have you considered taking Amtrak? I'm sure it's crowded, but you avoid the TSA silliness at the airport, so it might be faster depending on where in the Philadelphia area you're going and whether you need car hire or can have someone pick you up at 30th Street Station.

Posted by: Rich | November 1, 2006 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I'm a frequent driver to NYC, and I take advantage of I-295 through New Jersey rather than the parallel section of the NJ Turnpike. I have found it is consistently far less crowded, and it's a snap to get back on the Turnpike via I-195 near Trenton.

Delaware people also know the secret to avoiding the mess at the tollbooth on I-95 is to briefly enjoy Newark as you skip to the next exit.

Posted by: Tim in DC | November 1, 2006 5:50 PM | Report abuse

It appears not that many people travel southwest. but with family in TN, we do quite often. Unfortunaly, there isn't much of an alternative to 81 (or maybe thats why there are not comments). To get to 81, I often go through Fredericksburg and Charlottesville rather than taking 66. Pick your favorite route to Fredericksburg, then take rt 3 west. Take a left onto rt 20 toward Orange. In Orange, turn left onto Rt 15 to Gordonsville. At the traffic circle in Gordonsville, go 180 degrees (I think its rt 321). Follow that through beautiful horse and sheep country. Turn right at the end of the road, and that will take you right to I-64. Hop in it going west and you will hit 81. The two potential problems with this route are getting to Fredericksburg and fog on Afton Mountain. But I love the drive so much its worth it.

As for flying, we tried it one year. Its about an 8 1/2 hour drive to the family farm west of Knoxville. We flew once, it was well over 8 hours, even with a direct flight, by the time you add up driving to Dulles, taking the shuttle, the lines for holiday travel, picking up the rent, and driving 30 minutes west of Knoxville. I'll take the car where I can decide when to stop and I know who my seat mate is.

Posted by: Ruby | November 2, 2006 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Doh! typo. rent = rental car. My brain moved ahead before my fingers finished typing.

Posted by: ruby | November 2, 2006 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Ruby is correct about the roundabout in Gordonsville--approaching from the north on US-15, you take the second exit from the roundabout onto VA-231 south. It changes route numbers in Cismont, but that's not important, as you just go straight ahead until it dumps you onto US-250 just east of Charlottesville. The route Ruby describes is my standard route down there for football games. Fewer cops than on US-29, too, although on Thanksgiving weekend there may be a lot of traffic getting down to Fredericksburg. (US-1 can work as an alternative to I-95, but the traffic light at the Mercedes dealer just north of the Rappahannock is a LONG light.)

Posted by: Rich | November 2, 2006 10:25 AM | Report abuse

IMO, I-68 in western Maryland is a much safer road than the Penn. Turnpike. It is a much newer road, with truck lanes going up steep grades, and in general the speed limit is always above 65 mph. The Turnpike is winding, dangerous and overcrowded with speedlimits that drop to 55 mph in some places. I calculated out the distances one time, and the I-68 route is 10 miles longer than the Turnpike to the Ohio border. The longer distance is negated by the fact that the Maryland Highway patrol is AWOL in western Maryland, allowing an average speed over 70 coupled with the 70 mph speed limit in WV. Not encouraging breaking the law, though it's my experience that no one cares if you speed in Maryland.

Posted by: Chris | November 2, 2006 11:27 AM | Report abuse

US 68 through western Maryland is really quite lovely -- definitely take it if it's nice weather. Otherwise, it can get extremely foggy. I think there was a pretty big pileup a few years ago around the holidays. Also be sure your car is up to the drive -- it's quite hilly.

And for the poster who said no one goes as slow as 70 mph through West Virginia... I got a ticket for going 76, so driver beware.

Posted by: IHateParis | November 2, 2006 11:43 AM | Report abuse

From Dulles area to Fredericksburg/Tidewater

We either go to Fred or Norfolk for the holidays and avoid 95 and 64 like the plague. We'll typically take 29 and get on 17 south just past Warrenton. Instead of jumping on 95 in Falmouth (Rt 17, exit 133), we'll continue on to the Rt 1 intersection, continue straight across at the light (this becomes Butler Road) and go about 1/2 -3/4 mile to a right on Chatham Heights Road. We then turn right again on Rt 3, cross the Rappahannock River and we're in downtown Fred. Take a quick right onto Sophia Street and then a quick left onto Ameilia Street. At Princess Anne Street, turn left and you're back on Rt. 17 (business). Follow this out of town and you'll hook back up w/ Rt. 17 (bypass) just past the country club. Continue on 17 South to the Tidewater area. Not only is it a beautiful drive, it's no where near as crowded as the interstates are (any time of the year).

Posted by: Sam F. | November 2, 2006 2:26 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the other posters that I68 is far superior to the Penn Turnpike, and it's a much more scenic drive.

Although they are not often out, the Maryland State Police do care about speeding on I68, having been caught before. On the positive side, when you do happen to get pulled over, they are a heckuva lot nicer than State Police elsewhere. In my experience, anyways.

Posted by: Mike | November 2, 2006 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Take the train to New York and points around there. Pay a little extra for Acela or, at the very least, a business class seat on the regular train, and you can avoid the crowds.

Of course that only works if you bought your tickets a month or two ago. You're likely SOL now.

Posted by: Dave | November 2, 2006 10:44 PM | Report abuse

I second the suggestion to take Rt. 17 to Tidewater, as well as using Rt. 301 in Maryland to avoid 95 south in Virginia. That's the way I go to the Outer Banks every year and Rt. 17 is a lovely drive. One suggestion for those traveling southwest through Virginia is Rt. 29. You can take it down to Lynchburg then cross over to I-81 through Roanoke via Rt. 460, or all the way down to Greensboro, NC, then hook up with I-40 or I-85.

Posted by: Dee | November 3, 2006 11:19 AM | Report abuse

For Thanksgiving, I plan on going to Charlotte on Tuesday morning and coming back on Saturday afternoon. I can't decide between taking either I-81 or I-95 to Charlotte, NC. It looks like it route takes about the same time. I am worried that I could experience bad weather conditions on I-81. Any suggestions about which route is better and reasons why would be appreciated. Thanks in advance!

Posted by: Brian | November 12, 2006 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Brian, it's really much of a muchness which route you pick. I-95 has heavy traffic to Richmond, but you can generally go as fast as you want on I-85 in Virginia (once you hit the state line, it's a fairly bumpy ride most of the way to Durham). The I-81/I-77 route is far more scenic, but if the trucks on I-81 don't drive you nuts, then the old people who hog the left lane doing 65 or a bit less surely will! Once you're on I-77 it's a truly beautiful drive, though.

For your drive home on Saturday, though, ABSOLUTELY avoid the I-81 route. The UVA-VPI football game is being played in Blacksburg that Saturday and traffic will be VERY heavy! (Gametime TBA as I type this.) UNC will be at Duke, too, so you may get some traffic on I-85 too, but nothing compared to UVA-VPI. (Just check the ACC standings for a major reason why....)

In fact, you could even get off I-85 in Greensboro and take US-29 to avoid both routes in both directions north and south. The speed limit is now 65 for most of the way from Danville to Charlottesville and 60 from C'ville to Opal. Lynchburg is far less of a problem, too, since the new bypass opened. Check it out; if your map doesn't show the bypass, figure it goes east of what your map shows from just south of Amherst to roughly the US-460/US-501 junction east of Lynchburg.

Posted by: Rich | November 12, 2006 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Errr, to clarify my last point--going south on the US-29 route you'd take 29 to Greensboro and then follow signs for I-85 south; going north, look for signs that may direct you on the old I-85 through Death Valley in Greensboro and then to US-29 north. You could also use the other route between DC and Charlottesville noted above.

Posted by: Rich | November 12, 2006 5:56 PM | Report abuse

The UVA-VPI game has been confirmed for noon on Nov. 25. Expect heavy traffic leaving Blacksburg in both directions on I-81 starting around 3.30 to 4.00 PM.

Posted by: Rich | November 16, 2006 8:49 AM | Report abuse

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