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Planning Holiday Travel

Maybe it's the warmth of this autumn that makes Thanksgiving seem so remote. But it's less than three weeks away, and now is a good time to plan for the most difficult holiday traveling of the year. I'm again looking for your advice on holiday getaway routes and travel times. What did you learn from last year's experiences?

The key things I learned from surveying readers is that travelers should be aware of alternative routes and have a plan to use them, but there are no undiscovered shortcuts to the places most people are heading. Good timing on the departure counts more than anything else.

Here's a letter that many readers said they found helpful last fall.

Dear Dr. Gridock:

The I-95/New Jersey Turnpike/Garden State Parkway route to northern New Jersey or north of there now has round-trip tolls of over $27. Toll increases have been brutal and punishing.

On non-Thanksgiving weekdays, leaving at 2 a.m. and driving with no crazies on the road, no tollbooth lines at all, and using the I-95/New Jersey Turnpike/Garden State Parkway route noted above, I travel from Mount Vernon to near the northernmost tip of New Jersey in 4 hours 10 minutes, arriving for a nap and a nice breakfast.

An under-five-hour, much sweeter and prettier, toll-free trip to that same northern tip of New Jersey is I-95 (I-695 around Baltimore), I-83 to York and Harrisburg, then I-81 to I-78 to just before Allentown, then U.S. 22 to Route 33 to I-80 across the top of New Jersey. All of the trip is on wide highways, and it is all toll free!

Pete J. Dunn
Mount Vernon

Here are some other helpful ideas that came in from readers.

Going Northeast
-- There are workarounds to both the Susquehanna and Delaware toll plazas on I-95 that will save time in heavy traffic. For the former, take the Havre de Grace exit to Route 40 east and make a left on 40. Another left on Route 222 takes you right back to I-95. Same toll, but beats the traffic. In Delaware, get off I-95 at Route 279 north/west, make a right on Route 4 and follow that to Route 273 and back to I-95.

-- Farther north, if it's not the height of rush hour, go through Philadelphia on I-95 and use Route 1 to Route 18 to get back on the New Jersey Turnpike well above the worst bottlenecks. You can also use I-195 at Trenton to get back to the Turnpike.

-- From the Washington area, take the Bay Bridge and go up Route 301 to Route 896 east to Route 1. Follow the signs for the Delaware Memorial Bridge. There's no toll northbound. Once over the bridge, forego the New Jersey Turnpike for I-295.

To Interstate 81
Go through Fredericksburg and Charlottesville rather than taking Interstate 66. From Fredericksburg, take Route 3 west. 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. 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 on it going west, and you will hit 81.

We'll use The Post's Sunday commuter page to feature advice and warnings on travel during the Thanksgiving and December holidays. So please post your suggestions here on the blog, or send them to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

By Robert Thomson  |  November 5, 2007; 8:26 AM ET
Categories:  Getaway  
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Comments

I routinely take I-78 to I-81 to US-15 to I-270 to get home from the NYC area. It's a much better drive with the only real traffic in the NYC suburbs and then in Harrisburg. It only has a $0.60 toll westbound on I-78 (EZ-Pass discount!!!) and traffic in Harrisburg on I-81 during rush hour. Yeah, it takes me a around 5 hours to get home, but it beats 5 hours sitting on I-95. The only downside to this direction is that there aren't many alternates like US-40 or US-1 or BW Parkway or US-29, or I-70 to MD-29, etc. if traffic gets backed up or something.

One thing to watch out for is the construction on I-78 west of Allentown. It's a doosy now and you may have to detour on a local road to beat the one lane traffic.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 5, 2007 9:42 AM | Report abuse

I usually go south on 15 in Gordonsville rather than southwest on 231. It puts you on 64 a little farther east, but it gets you off the 2 lane roads and onto a 65mph highway a little sooner.

Posted by: John | November 5, 2007 10:43 AM | Report abuse

All of my close family lives in the area, so I don't have to travel. And they're all coming to my house this year.

If anyone would like to pay me to drive them up north, or down south, please reply and we'll find a way to exchange information. I can only fit about 3 people and only one medium-sized piece of luggage per person, but I can promise a comfortable and safe ride. If you book a hotel for me, then I'll give you 40% off. Seriously, because I need an escape plan to avoid having to spend Thanksgiving with those crazy and deranged people that I share nothing with except for half my DNA.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | November 5, 2007 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Last year, it was a five and a half hour nightmare in the rain and wind to Ocean City the night before Thanksgiving. This year, we head to Knoxville....on Tuesday night. Going half way to Roanoke and getting a hotel room, then finishing the drive on Wednesday morning. Let this year be kinder please!

Posted by: CMc62480 | November 5, 2007 10:54 AM | Report abuse

It's been said many times before, but anyone going up I-95 really ought to get an EZPass, even if you use it only once or twice a year. They always help at the tolls. Sometimes teh backups are too long, but once you get to the ezpass lanes, the traffic generally goes.

Posted by: ah | November 5, 2007 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Note that Delaware has been kind enough to increase the toll for their 10 mile stretch of I-95 up to $4.00 each way (EZ Pass was $1.25 just three years ago), with no EZPass discount. See Dr. G's main article for the workaround to this!

Posted by: Joe in SS | November 5, 2007 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I saw a lot of good advice on here, having travelled between NYC and DC (or Charlottesville) during the holidays for almost a decade now. Here's my thoughts:

1) The I-95 corridor is awful during the holidays. Avoid at all costs if you can.

2) Having E-ZPass does save time...and if you are on the I-95 corridor heading to NYC area, it will save a lot of time. You can still order it now and have it in time for Thanksgiving. THe reason many people don't want E-ZPass if they are only making one or two trips a year is because many agencies implemented a $1/month "service fee", which discourages infrequent users. Worry not though, as there are still some agencies that do not charge service fees or make you pay for your tag. I believe VDOT is one of them ( www.ezpassva.com ) and another is the Delaware River and Bay Authority (the folks who run the Delaware Memorial Bridge www.drba.net ). You can get an E-ZPass from ANY agency and use it on all E-ZPass facilities.

3) Route 50 over the Bay Bridge to Route 301 to Route 896 to Route 13 to Route 1 is a great workaround for traffic (though more people seem to discover it each year) between DC and Delaware...and saves a significant amount of tolls ($2.50 vs. $11 northbound and free vs. $6 southbound). Make sure that you use Route 13 to bypass the tolls in Biddles Corner DE...since those tolls have increased (on weekends only though) too.

4) The Delaware Memorial Bridge is always a mess. My workaround for this is when coming up Route 13 (assuming you use the Bay Bride detour mentioned above), exit onto Route 141 north, then get onto I-495 north around Wilmington. This puts you onto I-95 in PA. Take Route 322, the Commodore Barry Bridge into NJ, then exit onto Route 130 north which feeds into I-295, which parallels the NJ Turnpike. Take that to Route 1 to Route 18 to the NJ Turnpike.

5) on the NJ Turnpike and into NYC on I-95: use the truck lanes, the eastern spur of the Turnpike (towards Exits 15E - 18E), the Local Lanes of I-95 approaching the GW Bridge, and the Lower Level of the bridge. Just beware that you need E-ZPass to use the lower level into NYC during overnight hours.

6) If you can avoid driving, I'd highly recommend Amtrak. Get tickets NOW though...I got mine yesterday and a lot of trains were already sold out. Amtrak rarely sees major delays heading up to NYC and Boston, unlike the roads and the skies.

7) Remmember parking lots fill at some major airports (National especially).

8) Remember that the Friday after Thanksgiving is NOT a holiday! Rush hour lanes, weekday parking restrictions, etc. are in effect on that Friday. So if you think parking near a Metro station in a resident zone or metered spot is a good workaround to no parking at National, Union Station, etc....try again (I had a friend try this last year and she parked in a rush hour lane and her car was towed).

Posted by: Woodley Park | November 5, 2007 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Maryland also does not charge a service fee. It requires only a $25 starting balance, which is not that much (I realize for some it's not inconsequential), and it refreshes the balance when you drop below $10. And now it can be used on the dulles toll road too.

Posted by: ah | November 5, 2007 11:55 AM | Report abuse

To add to what Pete from Mount Vernon mentions above on a route to the northern tip of New Jersey, consider this alternative. I've used this many times for travel between Rockville/Gaithersburg and Suffern, NY (Rockland County north of NYC).

Instead of staying on I-83 all the way to Harrisburg, and taking I-81 to I-78, try this: exit I-83 in York, PA onto US 30 East. Follow US 30 to PA 283 in Lancaster to US 222 East to Reading and almost all the way to Allentown. Once just short of Allentown, make a left onto PA 100 and take that 3 miles to link up with I-78. This route avoids the traffic snarls at Harrisburg (I've gotten stuck in Harrisburg a few times before) and it avoids the awful roadwork on I-78 between I-81 and Allentown. As someone else already mentioned, the I-78 roadwork reduces the road to one lane in each direction.

The alternate route mentioned via Lancaster and Reading is also on entirely controlled-access four lane highways with the exception of a small (<10 mile portion) of US 222 and PA 100 around Trexlertown. US 222 and PA 100 are easy, two-lane rural roads, so you may have to drop your speed from 65-70mph to 50mph for this small stretch. Traffic lights are minimal. Best of all, this route is less mileage that the 83 to 81 to 78 route and it generally runs further south and east compared to the interstate route. (The further south and east in PA you can stay in winter, the better you are.)

One last thing: If you are coming from north and west of DC to points up in northern PA and NJ/NY, consider using I-270 to US 15 to MD 194 to PA 194 to US 30 at Abbottstown, then continue on US 30 from York as above. (This route also stays further south and east and steers clear of Harrisburg. MD and PA 194 are rural two-lane roads with good sight distance and a 55mph speed limit, although there are speed reductions and traffic lights through Taneytown, MD and Hanover, PA.)

Total tolls: $0.00

Enjoy the scenery!

Posted by: xyv1027 | November 5, 2007 1:03 PM | Report abuse

(1) I second alot of the alternate routes to northern NJ and NY that are mentioned above. I particularly like the US 30 and US 222 alternative (to avoid Harrisburg). Just be sure and watch out for speed traps on US 222 in the vicinty of Ephrata, PA.

And one other thing, I'd avoid PA 33 from Allentown to Stroudsburg during snowy weather. The stretch of PA 33 near the Poconos is infamous for being poorly plowed. PA does a poor job of plowing in general. Instead of using PA 33, stay on I-78 into NJ and then pick up I-287 North which eventually runs into I-80, I-87 and the Tappan Zee Bridge.

(2) For the poster driving to Knoxville, TN on Tuesday, beware of I-81 traffic. I-81 can be terribly congested through Harrisonburg, Staunton and Roanoke, especially two days before Thanksgiving. If I were you, I'd leave Monday instead (Tuesday traffic is as bad as Wednesday's now), or consider this option instead of I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, take US 29 south from Gainesville, through Culpeper, Charlottesville and then once in Lynchburg, take US 460 West to join I-81 at Roanoke. Picking up I-81 at this point, avoids the worst pockets of congestion further north. US 29 and US 460 are good four-lane highways, long stretches are just like interstate highways.

A question for everyone: How would you suggest my sister get here (North Arlington) from Elkins, WV? Is it worth going all the way "around" via I-79 and I-68 to I-70 or should she take a more direct route through the mountains? Maybe US 33?

Posted by: North Arlington | November 5, 2007 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I've done the Route 222 bit from Lancaster to Allentown. Route 222 between Allentown and Kutztown is awful, clogged with traffic lights, and just a horrible drive. The few times I've gone this way I've used Route 737 to connect from Route 222 in Kutztown to I-78 in Krumsville. It gets you onto the highway and moving a lot sooner, and you will still avoid the construction on I-78.

From Elkins to Arlington, try taking Route 33 to Route 55 (near Seneca Rocks is where you make that connection I think), and take that to Strasburg. Then you can pick up I-81 north for one exit to I-66. Alternatively stay on I-81 a couple more exits to Stevens City, take that exit and go east (it is signed "to Route 340"). Take Route 340 north to Route 50 east through Upperville and Middleburg. That avoids even I-66. Or just take Route 7 east from Winchester to Leesburg and the Greenway/Toll Road.

Posted by: Woodley Park | November 5, 2007 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I bought my Thanksgiving and Christmas plane tickets MONTHS ago and saved several hundred samolians for each trip.

Posted by: Lincoln Park | November 5, 2007 2:47 PM | Report abuse

"I usually go south on 15 in Gordonsville rather than southwest on 231. It puts you on 64 a little farther east, but it gets you off the 2 lane roads and onto a 65mph highway a little sooner."

Funny, I'm partial to the 231 route (except late at night due to my concern about deer), simply because I think it's a nice drive. Passing the scenic little church just north of Cismont is a highlight of the drive for me.

Posted by: Rich | November 5, 2007 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Woodley, There are widening/have widened US 222 between Kutztown and Allentown. Its now a four-lane divided highway most of the way to PA 100 at Trexlertown. There is still some work to be done though. It puzzles me why US 222, a large freeway through Reading suddenly became a poorly kept road once east of Kutztown.

North Arlington, Speaking from experience, I would not recommend US 33 or WV 55 over the Appalachians. I went to school at WV Wesleyan in Buckhannon, WV and *always* went the long way around. Use US 33 to Weston, then I-79 to I-68 to I-70 to Ellicott City, it was exactly 278 miles. I could make the trip in 4 hours. Keep in mind, speed limits in WV on I-79 and I-68 are 70mph.

I know you'll be starting from Elkins (even further east than Buckhannon), as a second option, I'd suggest US 219 North to Deep Creek and Oakland, then take I-68, I-70 and I-270 to Washington. This route gives some mountain road travel with steep grades on US 219 between Elkins and Thomas, WV but once your in Garrett County, MD the road is in a great shape, generally 55 mph with wide shoulders. There are a few slower (40mph) spots through Oakland and Deep Creek's resort area. WV 55 to Strasburg and US 33 southwest to Harrisonburg are both extremely winding and tiring. They aren't plowed very well in winter either, particularly on the WV side. Hope this helps!

Posted by: xyv1027 | November 5, 2007 3:22 PM | Report abuse

To avoid holiday traffic particularly at rushhour on I-66 close to DC, try this: use the Dulles Toll Rd to VA 28 North for 1/2 mile, then take VA 606 West to US 50 West at South Riding. You can stay on US 50 until US 15 (Gilberts Corner) and then take Route 15 to Haymarket. Picking up I-66 west here, you are generally beyond the bad congestion in Fairfax and eastern Prince William. Plus, and more importantly, you'll join the interstate AFTER the four into 2 merge at Manassas.

Or, you can stay on US 50 until US 17 (near Paris, VA) and then pick-up I-66. Or, depending on your destination, stay on US 50 all the way to Winchester. From my travels, I find the first route to be quickest.

Posted by: Avoiding I-66 | November 5, 2007 3:32 PM | Report abuse

"Woodley, There are widening/have widened US 222 between Kutztown and Allentown. Its now a four-lane divided highway most of the way to PA 100 at Trexlertown. There is still some work to be done though. It puzzles me why US 222, a large freeway through Reading suddenly became a poorly kept road once east of Kutztown."

Last time I was there (Several months ago), it became 2 lane north of Reading, then widened to a nice bypass around Kutztown, then it went back down to 2 lanes between Kutztown and I-78. The reason for the change in road type is that Route 222 was entirely a poorly kept road with 2 lanes, signals, and development the whole way from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Allentown. It has been upgraded to freeway slowly over the years, but the segment north of Reading just hasn't been done yet. Same reason why I-66 west of Manassas wasn't widened in one big project...not enough funding, so they break it into segments.

Posted by: Woodley Park | November 5, 2007 4:50 PM | Report abuse

In response to the comment on ways to avoid I-66, I'm not so sure your great shortcuts are that great after all. Traffic headed west on Route 50 from South Riding to Gilberts Corner (the traffic light at Route 15) is bad most afternoons, and its even worse around holiday getaway time. Delays on Route 50 extend from the merge after Stone Ridge (where the road goes to one lane each way) all the way to the light at Gilberts Corner; the time to get through this waiting line can easily run upward of 30-45 minutes. With that said, I have no idea what I-66 in this vicinity but Route 50 is certainly no shortcut until the traffic light at Gilberts Corner can somehow be done away with. Frankly, the light will always be there as part of the traffic calming on Route 50 in western Loudoun and eastern Fauquier. The village of Aldie and even us in Middleburg will never allow Route 50 to become a super-highway alternative to I-66.

With this said, get a good map and check it out. There are ways to avoid the long wait at Gilberts Corner when coming west on Route 50 from Chantilly and South Riding.

Posted by: Middleburg guy | November 6, 2007 7:55 AM | Report abuse

The alternative to I-66 using Route 50 really isn't all that great. Expect at least a 30 minute wait to get through the light at Route 15/Gilberts Corner on most any weekday afternoon, particularly Fridays and holiday getaway days.

Posted by: Middleburg guy | November 6, 2007 7:57 AM | Report abuse

"One last thing: If you are coming from north and west of DC to points up in northern PA and NJ/NY, consider using I-270 to US 15 to MD 194 to PA 194 to US 30 at Abbottstown, then continue on US 30 from York as above. (This route also stays further south and east and steers clear of Harrisburg. MD and PA 194 are rural two-lane roads with good sight distance and a 55mph speed limit, although there are speed reductions and traffic lights through Taneytown, MD and Hanover, PA.)"

Just pointing out that you will have to take MD 26 for 3 or 4 miles off of US 15 (around the north side of Frederick) in order to get to MD 194 (MD 194 doesn't intersect US 15). xyv1027 is right that MD 194 is a decent road.

Posted by: cb | November 6, 2007 8:36 AM | Report abuse

"Funny, I'm partial to the 231 route (except late at night due to my concern about deer), simply because I think it's a nice drive. Passing the scenic little church just north of Cismont is a highlight of the drive for me."

I've done all the various different ways of going from Gordonsville to Charlottesville, and lately taking 15 all the way to 64 has been working for me. I used to take a right in Orange and get on 20 and take that all the way, but it's just too curvy a road to be comfortable on.

I agree that the drive is very nice compared to coming down 29 all the way.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 6, 2007 11:56 AM | Report abuse

"With that said, I have no idea what I-66 in this vicinity but Route 50 is certainly no shortcut until the traffic light at Gilberts Corner can somehow be done away with. Frankly, the light will always be there as part of the traffic calming on Route 50 in western Loudoun and eastern Fauquier. The village of Aldie and even us in Middleburg will never allow Route 50 to become a super-highway alternative to I-66."

That traffic light is scheduled to be eliminated in the next few years when that intersection is rebuilt as a series of three roundabouts, two of which are to be a short distance away from the current intersection; these two will be connected by a new road such that traffic going from westbound US-50 to southbound US-15, or northbound US-15 to eastbound US-50, will be able to bypass Gilbert's Corner.

There was an effort to build a four-lane bypass around Middleburg some years back, but the residents of the area successfully fought it. See http://www.route50.org/ for information on the project, and see http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/const-project.asp?ID=417 for more information on the Gilbert's Corner aspect.

"I used to take a right in Orange and get on 20 and take that all the way, but it's just too curvy a road to be comfortable on."

I don't use that option either. Nice drive, but slow. There are virtually no passing zones on there, and if you get stuck behind someone going 30 mph you're in for a miserable time. If I'm coming back from Charlottesville at night, I sometimes take US-29 to Ruckersville, then go across US-33 to Gordonsville. It's a bit out of the way, but I feel like I have better visibility on US-33 at night than I do on the other roads, and since last month we were behind a guy who hit a deer near Orange (thankfully we avoided hitting the carcass), I've become a lot more conscious of such things!

Posted by: Rich | November 6, 2007 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Just as a note for anyone going north on I-95.

When you cross the bridge on Route 40, ask for a sticker/decal. It costs the same as the regular tool, $5, and you get the rest of your crossings for a full 12 months for free.

Otherwise, I suggest staying on 95 through Philadelphia unless it's rush hour on up to I-195 at Trenton. It's much prettier than the NJ Turnpike area and it's usually faster.

Posted by: EricS | November 6, 2007 1:05 PM | Report abuse

How is the traffic going north of 95 the day before Thanksgiving if I leave DC at 11am?

Posted by: Andre Roussimoff | November 6, 2007 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Andre Roussimoff,
Only a little better than it would be if you left at noon.
Many people get out 'early' to beat the crowd; the earlier that you leave, the better off you will be.

Posted by: Historian | November 6, 2007 5:03 PM | Report abuse

my route to NYC:
MD 295/BW Pkwy into Baltimore. Right on Pratt, Left Charles, Get on 83 N, to Baltimore Beltway East, to RT 1 North to Pennsylvania 476, to 95 to Philly, to Rte 1 N, to 1/9 N, to Holland Tunnel. It takes exactly 25 minutes longer than taking 95 the whole way up.

Posted by: chuck | November 6, 2007 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Rich, Thanks for the VDOT link on the plan to eliminate the turn signal at Gilberts Corner. Any idea when the construction will get underway? They are already working on traffic calming in the town of Upperville but last I drove through, nothing had been done yet in Middleburg, Aldie or at Gilberts Corner.

Better traffic flow to, around and through Gilberts Corner should help out alot! It may even take some of the burden off I-66 if folks know they can rely on US 50 as a good alternate.

Posted by: xyv1027 | November 7, 2007 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I have no idea. Wish I knew, actually. US-50 out there could be a good bypass even for traffic heading south towards Warrenton, but Gilberts Corner is just too unpredictable as things now stand.

Posted by: Rich | November 7, 2007 5:36 PM | Report abuse

I am driving from Washington DC to Fort Lee NJ on Thanksgiving and returning on Saturday. Which day is worse traffic wise on Interstate 95? I will take the route through PA through Allentown on the day the traffic is expected to be the worst. We are forced to travel in the afternoon both days.

Posted by: Mary | November 12, 2007 4:16 PM | Report abuse

My children's school is taking the 4th grade class on an all-day field trip from DC to Jamestown, VA on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Leaving DC at 8am and returning at 8:30pm. I assume some college students and other people take 3 days of vacation and so leave on Friday. Does anyone have experience with I-95 on the Friday before Thanksgiving?

Posted by: Patricia S. | November 13, 2007 10:27 PM | Report abuse

I HAVE A TRIP PLANNED TO GO NEW HYDE PARK NY THE DAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING. WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO GO,AVOIDING MOST OF NJ TURNPIKE. I HAVE TO LEAVE AROUND 4PM.YOUR HELP WOULD BE APPRECIATED.

Posted by: pat | November 14, 2007 5:56 AM | Report abuse

We are driving from Durham, NC to Georgetown. We were planning to leave Saturday to return Sunday, however would it better to leave Friday and return Saturday? Any tips to avoid I-95, time frames, etc?

Posted by: MLW | November 17, 2007 12:21 PM | Report abuse

I need advise on how to get to cumberland MD on wednesday without hitting to much traffic on 495 and 295

Posted by: Anne | November 20, 2007 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Advice on traveling from DC to Albany with no 95 or 495, possible?

Posted by: A | November 21, 2007 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Getting to Albany with out taking 95? Get to Frederick, MD (from Va take US Rts 15 & 340, from MD I-270). Take US Rt 15 to Harrisburg than Pa 381 to I83 then to I81.

Stay on I81 to NY (Binghamton) and then I88 to Albany. Enjoy.

i

Posted by: jeffrey parnes | November 21, 2007 9:39 PM | Report abuse

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