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Thursday Will Be the Worst Travel Day for the Christmas Getaway

Think of the sheer magnitude of it all.  “Following yonder star,” a combined total of 7.2 million persons hailing from Virginia, Maryland, and the Washington metro area will travel by automobile to their Christmas time and New Year’s Eve holiday destinations. Charting the best possible escape routes, they will experience the greatest amount of travel delays in the greater Washington area tomorrow afternoon, Thursday, December 21, projections by INRIX and AAA show. Thursday, coincidentally, is also the busiest travel day for airline passengers during the holiday period.

It is a “Terrible Traffic Trifecta,” as the misery index increases threefold on some roads. More specifically, INRIX pinpoints the worst hours for absolute getaway gridlock –between the hours of 3:00 P.M. and 6:00 P.M., Thursday – the very hours that regular commuters mix with holiday travelers on their getaway trips. Travel times will elongate by two and a half times during those three hellish hours. Traffic delays will lengthen and frustrations will mount. Know the roads, traffic jams and times to avoid.

“In superlative terms, this afternoon’s rush hour will be pretty bad, and tomorrow afternoon’s rush hour will be even worse, as travelers embarking on  their holiday getaways and people heading home from work converge on area arterials,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Spokesman. “Altogether, 2,441,867 Washington area residents will venture via vehicles to their Christmas and New Year’s destinations. It’s double the number of area residents, 1,123,500 souls, who took to the roads at Thanksgiving.”

Depending upon whether their holiday trip down “Santa Claus Lane” takes them through Maryland or Virginia, they will either join 2,721,384 Virginia residents on roads in the Commonwealth or 2,074, 543 Maryland residents on state roads. They will depart on some of the busiest routes in the nation.

Worst Days/Times to Travel
Metro Area Worst Day for Travel Worst Time for Travel Delay Multiplier
New York, NY Wednesday, Dec. 20 3:30 – 5:30 PM 3x
Los Angeles, CA Wednesday, Dec. 20 3:30 – 6:00 PM 2.5x
Washington, DC Thursday, Dec. 21 3:00 – 6:00 PM 2.5x
San Francisco, CA Wednesday, Dec. 20 3:00 – 5:30 PM 2x
Chicago, IL Thursday, Dec. 21 4:00 – 6:00 PM 2x
Boston, MA Thursday, Dec. 21 2:30 – 4:30 PM 2x
Seattle, WA Thursday, Dec. 20 4:00 – 6:00 PM 2x
Atlanta, GA Thursday, Dec. 21 4:30 – 6:30 PM 1.5x
Houston, TX Wednesday, Dec. 20 5:30 – 7:30 PM 1.5x
Detroit, MI Thursday, Dec. 21 3:00 – 5:30 PM 1.5x

Travel times could double and treble. If history is an unerring guide, there are four major highways to hell in the guise of escape routes. Delays will more than double on Interstate 66 westbound, Interstate 270, Interstate 95 in Maryland, and Interstate 95 in Virginia. Be especially wary of I-95 southbound @ US-17/US-1/exit 126 in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, and I-95 at the Occoquan River, where three parallel roadways combined convey 225,000 cars a day. Critical mass will also manifest itself along on the newly minted nine-mile-long Express Lanes corridor from 3 P.M. – 7 P.M. To circumnavigate these gridlocked routes and avoid the bottlenecks, rely upon AAA’s TripTik Travel Planner, or use a GPS before you begin your trip.

Things will grind to a halt on the Capital Beltway in Maryland at Exit 27, at the confluence on I-495 and I-95 north, as travel volume curiously dropped from 253,835 cars daily in 2015 to 247,970 vehicles a day in 2016. Brace yourself for extensive arterial congestion on the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County at exit 41- the Clara Barton Parkway, where traffic volume averages 237,702 vehicles per day in 2016, and at exit 40 – Cabin John Parkway – Glen Echo, which averages 227,042 vehicles daily. Holiday commuters will also encounter bottlenecks on the Capital Beltway at exit 39 – MD 190 (River Road), and around exit 38 – the  I-270 Spur north, which saw 243,060 vehicles daily in 2016, down from 249,632 vehicles per day in 2015.

Based on historical and recent travel trends, INRIX expects drivers will experience the greatest amount of congestion before the holiday week – on Wednesday, Dec. 20 and Thursday, Dec. 21 – in the late afternoon as commuters leave work early and mix with holiday travelers. Drivers in New York City could see travel times peak at three times a normal trip between 3:30 and 5:30pm. Try to avoid traveling through major cities during peak travel times. The best times to leave are typically early morning or after the morning commute because the roads should be less crowded and you will have more time to reach your destination safely.  “With record-level travelers (97.4 million Americans) hitting the road this holiday, drivers must be prepared for delays in major metros,” notes Dr. Graham Cookson, chief economist & head of research at INRIX. “Our advice to drivers is to avoid peak times altogether or consider alternative routes.”

The “invisible highways in the skies” will be busy. Airports too, as “Vixen and Blitzen and all the reindeer pull on the reins.” The nation’s airlines are adding 91,000 more seats per day to accommodate holiday travelers. All told, 6.4 million Americans, including 148,600 Washington area residents, will jet to journey’s end. If you are flying to your Christmas and New Year’s holiday destinations, expect plenty of company and traffic on roadways approaching the area’s three big airports. Runways will be extremely busy at Reagan National Airport, Dulles International Airport, and BWI Marshall Airport. Security lines will elongate.

Airline passengers can expect “the busiest travel days” at airports to fall on “Thursday, December 21, Friday, December 22 and Tuesday, December 26,” according to Airlines for America (A4A).“The lightest travel days are expected to be Saturday, December 16, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve,” notes A4A, the industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines. Travelers should plan to arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to the scheduled departure of their flight. During peak travel times, contact your airline for guidance, as it may be necessary to arrive even earlier. This time of year travelers need to also be aware of potential weather delays. Make sure to check flight status regularly before traveling to the airport. To expedite travel, AAA recommends enrolling in programs such as TSA PreCheck and Global Entry.

It is axiomatic: knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic. If your schedule permits, traveling on the actual holiday often results in fewer cars on the road. Since 2005, total year-end holiday travel volume has grown by 21.6 million persons, an increase of more than 25 percent, explains AAA, North America’s largest motoring and leisure travel organization.

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Lee Hernly, Editor
the authorLee Hernly, Editor
Founder & Editor
Lee Hernly is the Founder and Editor of Port City Wire, Alexandria, Virginia's best source for hyper-local news, opinion, and events. I live in the Old Town Alexandria area with my fantastic wife and son Sam. Oh, there’s Serena & Bea too. I’m so excited to meet new readers and see where you are from! Please be sure to leave a comment with a link to your blog so I can check it out!

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