Best times to leave town to beat holiday traffic

WASHINGTON — AAA says this year will be a record breaker, with more than 103 million Americans traveling this holiday season — and most will be driving.

Ninety-one percent of those traveling will be taking to the road, which is 93.6 million people, AAA said. The travel period is from Friday, Dec. 23 to Monday, Jan. 2.

Locally, nearly 2.6 million D.C.-area residents will be traveling, AAA said. But the big question is: When is the best time to pack up the car and head out of town for the holiday?

“Your best odds are to leave earlier in the day and earlier in the week,” WTOP Traffic Reporter Dave Dildine said.

With Christmas being on Sunday this year, Dildine said, “The later you wait in the day and the later you wait in the week, the heavier the traffic’s going to be.”

Delays will be longer and more intense, he said.

Just like the Thanksgiving getaway, the winter holiday getaway will be a little more spread out and will not be happening all at once, Dildine said.

“Another thing to remember is that middays often feature heavier-than-average traffic,” he said. “So middays aren’t a great time to leave.”

Alternate routes

Dildine also offered some suggestions for alternate routes to take to avoid Interstate 95.

An alternate for Interstate 95 south would be U.S. 301 and across the Harry Nice Bridge. This works as an alternative for the getaway trip, he said, but traffic is usually a little heavier on the return trip home when you are heading northbound.

If you heading north, an alternative to using I-95 would be to take U.S. 50 to the Bay Bridge and then to U.S. 301 through Delaware, Dildine said.

Another alternative to I-95 north would be taking U.S. 15 north of Frederick into Pennsylvania — but this route can be a little dicey if the area gets wintry weather, he said.

Additionally, Interstate 81 works well if you are heading north, he said, but he warned that there is much more truck traffic this time of year.

Making the return trip

Although most people probably do not want to think about it yet, Dildine also offered insight for the return trip after the holidays. He said folks will not all be driving home at the same time.

“It’s even more diffused than the getaway traffic and a lot less predictable,” he said.

In general, things are a bit chaotic and people are under more stress this time of year, Dildine said. There are a lot of different people out driving locally, so he urged patience.

“You have people out shopping for last-minute gifts, you’ve got delivery truck drivers and then you have the ‘through travelers’ in the midst of their getaway,” he said.

Accept the fact that is it going to take a little longer to get where you are going because of the congestion, he said. Lower your expectations and give yourself some extra time to get to your destination.

For those staying put for the holidays, there is at least one silver lining.

“As far as traffic the last week of December, it’s fair to assume the final week of the year, we’ll see lighter than usual traffic between the holidays,” he said.

But you still might want to steer clear of the malls and shopping centers right after Christmas since folks will returning those unwanted Christmas gifts and using up those gift cards they received, he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect about 2.6 million D.C.-area residents are expected to travel.

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