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Alternative Holiday Routes

As the holidays approach, will the weakening economy circumvent lower gas prices and keep people from making long-distance road trips? Don't count on it. The Travel Industry Association says Americans think differently about holiday travel and will endure costs in time and money for the sake of joining friends and family. Although seasoned travelers say no undiscovered shortcuts around traffic backups exist, Dr. Gridlock and his helpers have a couple of options that might be worth trying.

Northeast: Issues | Avoiding I-95 | Avoiding Delaware Toll Plaza

South and West: Issues | Avoiding Much of I-81 | Avoiding I-66

Northeast Corridor Issues

  • Congestion Inevitable: The I-95 Corridor Coalition notes that this main north-south highway is 1,917 miles long, from Florida to Maine, with about 1,040 of those miles crossign through urbanized areas. Anyone who takes a long drive during the daytime will probably encounter someplace's rush hour. Many drivers say that traveling at off hours saves more time than any route variation.
  • Delaware: This small state is usually the biggest of congestion problems for East Coast travelers, partly because I-95 also serves as the Main Street of New Castle County.
  • E-ZPass: Watch the signs as you approach the tollbooths. Different toll authorities put their E-ZPass lanes in different positions, but when in doubt look for them at the left side of the toll plaza. The New Jersey Turnpike eased congestion considerably by installing overhead readers in the travel lanes at the toll plaza east of the Delaware Memorial Bridge that allow drivers to maintain highway speeds.
  • The Return: On the Sundays after Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day, there will be a tremendous traffic jam on the southbound New Jersey Turnpike near Exit 8, where the car and truck lanes converge. The Delaware Memorial Bridge toll plaza will also be backed up, and the traffic at the Delaware Turnpike plaza will be just ghastly.

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Avoiding I-95

Avoiding I-95 map

Northeast Corridor Issues

  • Background: We would be crazy to suggest this route in the summer because of beach traffic, but it's not a bad option for holiday travel. The time is competitive with I-95 on a normal day and especially so whent eh interstate is backed up. The off-interstate ride is also much prettier, particularly on Route 301, and a lot less stressful.
  • Watch For: Slow-moving vehicles -- maybe even a tractor or two -- on two-lane Route 896.
  • Detour: Instead of heading north, go east on Route 50 over the Bay Bridge to Route 301 to Route 896 to Route 1. There are tolls on the Bay Bridge and on Route 1, but they're a lot less than the tolls on I-95.
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Avoiding the Delaware Toll Plaza

Avoiding the Delaware Toll Plaza map

Northeast Corridor Issues

  • Background: Backups at the Delaware toll plaza are virtually inevitable, and this is a pretty quick way to scoot around them. It also saves a few bucks.
  • Watch For: Local speed limits. Slow down from highway speeds on thsoe secondary roads. You'll still be plenty of miles ahead of your fellow travelers.
  • Detour: From I-95 north, take Route 279 toward Newark, Del. Take the first right onto Iron Hill Road. At the end, turn left onto Chestnut Hill Road. Stay on that for a bit, then turn right onto Route 896 (South College Avenue) and I-95 will be about a quarter-mile down the road.
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Southern and Western Route Issues

  • Volume: These routes are heavily traveled by commuters and long-distance drivers. Getaway traffic can be a nightmare, and the return is no better.
  • Roadway: Near Gainesville, westbound I-66 narrows to two lanes in each direction, and the jams can stretch for miles.
  • 511: Virginia's 511 travel information service can be useful for navigating the holiday traffic scene. By calling 511 in Virginia or visiting, people can get directions and information about traffic incidents, bridges and tunnels and road construction. The service can be customized for mobile devices and computers.
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Avoiding Much of I-81

Avoiding Much of I-81 map

Southern and Western Route Issues

  • Background: Picking up I-81 at this point avoids the worst pockets of congestion farther north and avoids a lot of the truck traffic that makes the interstate so frightening. Routes 29 and 460 are good four-lane highways, and they roll through some pretty country south of Warrenton.
  • Watch For: Traffic in towns along the way. The biggest is Charlottesville, which is congested during peak travel times.
  • Detour: Take Route 29 south from Gainesville, through Culpeper, Charlottesville and on to Lynchburg, where you can take Route 460 west to join I-81 at Roanoke.
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Avoiding I-66

Avoiding I-66 map

Southern and Western Route Issues

  • Background: It's possible -- likely, even -- that I-95 will be no better than I-66. Check the roads first, and if it does look better, this is a good option that takes you through some of the prettiest parts of Virginia, particularly on Route 231.
  • Watch For: Traffic on Route 3. That's a main road for the Fredericksburg area, and there's a shopping mall near where it hits I-95.
  • Detour: Take I-95 south to Route 3 west in Fredericksburg. Take a left onto Route 20 toward Orange. In Orange, turn left onto Route 15 to Gordonsville. At the traffic circle in Gordonsville, go 180 degrees to Route 231. Turn right at the end of the road, and that will take you right to I-64. Hop on it going west, and you will hit I-81.
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By editors  |  November 17, 2008; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Congestion , holiday travel  
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Next: Community Meeting to Assess Baseball Parking Plan


If heading to the Hampton Roads area (which I see was curiously left out of this entry), Route 1 to 295 is your best bet, then take Route 60 east towards Williamsburg. Route 17 works too, but is a bit slow, in my opinion.

Posted by: thornwalker1 | November 17, 2008 2:16 PM | Report abuse

On the 'Avoiding I-95 Route', once you turn onto Rt. 896 in Delaware, make a left onto US Rt 13 North, which is just before the DE Rt 1 interchange. Follow US 13 about a mile, you will see and pass the Rt 1 mainline toll plaza, then you can get on NB Rt 1 to cross the canal without paying the toll. Then stay on Rt 1 north to intersect with I-95 near Christiana, or exit back onto 13 North to I-295 and the Del. Mem. Br (avoiding I-95 altogether).

Posted by: westkurtliz | November 17, 2008 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Something to note on E-ZPass is that in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland it's a standard to use a flashing yellow light to denote the E-ZPass Only lanes. (I don't recall whether this was the standard in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.) The flashing yellow light makes it easier to spot these lanes at a glance, especially at night.

Other points of note: The car/truck lane merge in New Jersey is at Exit 8A, not Exit 8. You can easily bypass this if you exit the Turnpike at Exit 9, then pop just to the west to US-1, go a short distance south, and then take US-130. US-130 largely parallels the Turnpike down through Hightstown to Bordentown; you can get on the Turnpike at Exit 8, Exit 7A (via I-195), or Exit 7 (via US-206), or you can get on I-295. You could also take US-130 down to Florence and then get on the Turnpike Extension going west to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but that's out of the way. (Another route through this whole area is US-1, which runs down past Princeton and meets I-95 and I-295 near Lawrenceville. It's a fast road most of the time, although some shopping malls can make for heavy traffic.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 17, 2008 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I've got to get to the northern part of Fairfield County, CT on Xmas eve...any suggestions? I will do just about anything to avoid any part of I-95 between Baltimore and NYC. Checking out Google maps but thought I'd ask for suggestions too...

Posted by: dcgirl1899 | November 17, 2008 6:19 PM | Report abuse

dcgirl, you could go through Pennsylvania. Take I-270 to Frederick, then US-15 north to Harrisburg, where you'll pick up PA-581 for a short distance to I-81.

Then take I-81 north to Scranton. You'll have to go south on I-380 for a short distance to connect to I-84, which you can then take east to Connecticut. I'm not familiar enough with the area to recommend a further route because that depends entirely on where you're heading.

(I'd recommend this route instead of taking I-78 east across Pennsylvania and then I-287 around New York because this summer I-287 was a mess of construction through White Plains and it didn't look like there was any chance of the work being done by December.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 17, 2008 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Careful on the approach to Iron Hill/Chestnut Hill in Delaware. The local police are hip to the exit route and usually speed trap the middle of Iron Hill. Also, if you need to eat, check out the diner on 896.

Posted by: info_stuporhighway | November 17, 2008 7:24 PM | Report abuse

The better route through delaware to avoid the toll is to:

Going North:
Take Exit 109B.
Turn Right on Christiana Parkway (DE4)
Turn Right on DE896
Then get on I-95
This avoids residential streets.

Going South:
Just reverse.

Or you can get off at Exit 109/Exit1 and go south to US40. A little longer, and more crowded, but it has more amentities.

I always use I-78 to I-81 to I-83 to PA-581 to US-15 to I-270 to visit D.C. No tolls northbound and only 1 75cent toll southbound. The only problem I hit is I-81 in Harrisburg...The route is 60 miles longer, an hour longer with no traffic, but with traffic, it is shorter.

I avoid tolls like the plague unless I'm in a rush. You can still go up the I-95 corridor but use other bridges to reduce the tolling. Like taking I-95 through Philly to Trenton, then either Take US1 north, or take I-295/I-195 to reach the NJ Turnpike.

US1 North of Baltimore will open up and few people use this route...its toll free over the Sus. River/through Delaware and you just pick up MD273/De273 then DE896 (or stay on DE273) to reach I-95.

Posted by: sonicforrest | November 18, 2008 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Whoops...I hit submit...

For the US1 alt...take I-95 to Bel Air, then go North at Exit 73 (I think it is) and take that road to US1.

US40 is also a good way to avoid I-95 traffic in maryland, but you still go to pay the toll

Posted by: sonicforrest | November 18, 2008 10:11 AM | Report abuse

What about Falls Church, VA to Charleston, WV?

Half the online maps say to go north (270/70/68/79). The other half say go south (66/81/64). There is only a mile or two difference between the two routes.

Does anyone have experience with these routes, especially around Thanksgiving?
(We'll be leaving Monday and coming back Saturday or Sunday morning)

Posted by: mglenn | November 20, 2008 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Falls Church to Charleston....if you can get up to I-70, then take that route. The two tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike can back up badly on Thanksgiving weekend. But getting to I-70 isn't fun, since the 4 into 2 merge on I-270, and the merge onto I-70 are awful. If you can do the Greenway to Route 15 north, you might avoid a lot of that mess.

DCgirl, you could take 1995hoo's route, or you could take I-78/I-287 instead. When you get into NY on I-287, go north on I-87, and then take Exit 17 and go east on I-84. Avoiding White Plains and the Tappan Zee is a very good idea during thanksgiving. might not want to come back home this way. The tolls on the NY Thruway at Exit 16 back up badly during Christmas shopping season because of Woodbury Commons traffic. So I'd use 1995hoo's route through Scranton on the way back.

As for bypassing the car/truck merge on the Jersey Turnpike southbound, get off at Exit 9, and go onto Route 1 south. Then either take US 1 south to I-295 in Princeton, or take US 130 south to I-195 west to I-295 south near Bordentown. No need to get back onto the Jersey Turnpike. Take I-295 to US 130 south at Exit 13, then take US 322 west over the Commodore barry Bridge into PA. I-95 south to I-495 south around Wilmington. Since Delaware is likely to be awful, where I-495 meets I-295 and I-95...follow the signs for Route 141 south. Take that to US 13 south, which feeds into Rotue 1 south, and follow the above suggested route via the Bay Bridge. But instead of taking Route 1 to Route 896, get off the first exit after the bridge, turn right, then right again on Route 13, bypass the tolls on Route 1, and make a right on Route 896 NORTH (actually westerly direction, but signed north). This route works well in reverse too.

I don't like the route via I-95 to avoid I-66. I-95 is almost always worse then I-66. I do like using Route 29 to bypass I-81 though. Pick up Route 29 by going north on Route 234 in Manassas, and then turning left onto 29. Or better yet, get off I-66 at Exit 52 in Centreville onto Route 29. This avoids the 4 into 2 merge west of Manassas, which you still would have to go through to get to 29 in Gainesville. And don't count on getting anywhere fast in Charlottesville at rush hour. You can bypass the worst of Charlottesville by turning right towards C-ville Airport, go 3/4 of the way around the first circle, then 3/4 of the way around the second circle onto Earlysville Road. When that road meets Hydraulic Road (first traffic light), turn right. Then right at the second light onto Georgetown, left at the first light onto Barracks, and then right onto 29 bypass south. This route also works well in the opposite direction.

Now that I've given away all my shortcuts...I can say I'm travelling from DC to Potomac MD for Thanksgiving, and couldn't be happier that it's my first holiday in 10+ years where I don't have to travel! Yay :)

thetan, formerly Woodley Park

Posted by: thetan | November 20, 2008 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Driving north to NJ for Thanksgiving, we can't leave DC till Wednesday. Would departing early Thursday morning make more sense than leaving after morning rush on Wednesday?

Posted by: tkera | November 21, 2008 8:46 AM | Report abuse

For mglenn:

Do you mean Charleston or Charles Town, WV?

That would explain the different routes.

Posted by: goodtrip1 | November 24, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

For anyone using I-95, VA-3, and VA-20 this week, two things to note:

(1) Gas is dirt-cheap along VA-3 right now. I paid $1.85 a gallon for 93 octane on Saturday at the Valero station at the corner of VA-3 and Brock Road. The Sheetz at the corner of VA-3 and VA-20 was 2¢ a gallon cheaper but was crowded and I didn't want to queue up just to save 24¢ on my overall purchase.

(2) There was heavy speedtrap activity on US-15 just south of Orange and on VA-231 just south of the Gordonsville Roundabout. In 16 years of using that route to go back and forth to Charlottesville I had never seen any speedtrap activity through that area. I have no idea whether it was because they saw the chance to nab football traffic (UVA played at home Saturday) or whether it's increased enforcement.

Finally, one point not mentioned in any of the blogs: Anyone using I-81 this weekend ought to avoid the Blacksburg area on Saturday. The UVA–VPI game is at noon in Blacksburg.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 24, 2008 3:21 PM | Report abuse

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