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holiday trafficOver the river and through the woods and . . . into a horrific travel nightmare?

Maybe. According to AAA, the number of Americans traveling over the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 24-28) is expected to increase more than 11 percent over last year. That translates into 42.2 million travelers driving at least 50 miles from home. Last year, 37.9 million Americans made the jaunt.

Tellingly, that’s significantly lower than the 2005 peak of 58.6 million travelers.

AAA says it all goes to show that distant family and friends still matter (that’s no surprise, is it?) and, more importantly, that wallets have a bit more cash in them this November. According to AAA President Robert L. Darbelnet, “While Americans remain cautious with household budgets and discretionary spending amidst high levels of unemployment, many are in a better financial position this Thanksgiving than a year ago.”

The automotive club explains that the increase “appears to be the result of modestly improved economic conditions since last year, including an increase in gross domestic product, real disposable personal income and household net worth combined with a decrease in consumer debt.”

Bottom line: When all is said and done, a little more traffic on the roads will be a good thing. Unless, that is, you’re stuck in traffic, in which case you’ll rue the day you decided to pack up the green-bean casserole and hit the road. I’ve been traveling up and down the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York City for years, often on busy holiday and summer weekends. Here are some things I always try to do to avoid the rush — or what I have on hand when I can’t.

Avoid peak times. Easier said than done, I know, but I hate traffic so much I’ll wake up at dawn or take a nap in the evening and head out at 5 a.m. or 10 p.m. if I have to. I’d rather move at my own pace than sit behind an oil tanker for 13 miles. Conversely, if you can’t change the time of travel, consider changing the day — returning home on Monday or leaving Tuesday night could make a big difference.

Pack a GPS, a smartphone or a good atlas. Seems obvious, but I’m always surprised when I’m in a car that has none of them. My wife and I have gone to the atlas countless times and plotted workarounds when traffic reports paint a dire picture. (Better yet, pore over the map beforehand so you have a Plan B or C before you walk out the door.) There are also numerous smartphone apps (e.g. Google Maps Navigation) that track traffic flow, and don’t forget about dialing 511 when you’re stuck in a jam for the latest info about what lies ahead.

Fill up and stock up. Sure, highway rest areas are convenient spots to fuel up, but the lines can be a real drag if you hit them at the wrong time. I always hop off the highway (even toll roads) and get gas that way. And be sure there are snacks, bottled water, car games, DVD’s, etc., in the vehicle — you never know when nuisance congestion will become an epic wait.

Pay tolls electronically. Many regions have programs that allow you to affix a device to your car and whiz through toll plazas. How come more people don’t use these? In my experience, the E-ZPass lanes in Delaware, New Jersey and New York are frequently car-free; even better, some toll areas establish E-ZPass-only lanes well in advance of the plaza itself, while others have overhead transponders allowing cars to drive through at full speed.

What are your tips for hassle-free holiday driving? (“Stay home” doesn’t count.)

Read More: Holiday Travel 2010: What You Need to Know

– written by John Deiner

3 Responses to “How to Survive Holiday Traffic”

  1. soliteyah says:

    We split Thanksgiving weekend between two houses, so we end up driving on Friday late morning (a great time!) and Sunday afternoon (not usually too bad). Absolutely agree with the E-ZPass recommendation — it’s a big time saver.

  2. Pemberton says:

    Excellent tips!

  3. Great advice. I especially agree with having enough snacks and water on board. And I appreciate having my Rand McNally road atlas with me…not just for planning alternate routes when the traffic piles up, but also for considering alternate routes when we want to stop and visit someplace interesting. It’s important to keep the journey a pleasure and not a chore, even when we have a family engagement to get to.

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