Planes and automobiles: DC-area travelers make their way to their Thanksgiving destinations

Travelers go through security on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)

Holiday travel is winding down, and despite millions expected to hit the road and take to the friendly skies, Wednesday was “not the busiest travel day of the year” on D.C.-area roads.

“It’s not even the busiest of the Thanksgiving getaway period,” WTOP Traffic reporter Dave Dildine said. “Tuesday and a few days last week were worse.”

“Peak congestion” started at 2 p.m. in the region, AAA said, with travel times lasting a little more than an hour.

“The heavy highway traffic around in the region, predictable, but not unlike some summer Friday afternoons,” said traffic reporter Dave Dildine from the WTOP Traffic Center. “So nothing outrageous and nothing beyond expectations for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”

And while some got an early start by leaving Tuesday night, it was a busy scene at Reagan National Airport Wednesday morning, with as many as 7,000 additional air travelers expected, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

On the road: ‘We’re getting into rush hour’

According to AAA, over 1.3 million D.C. area residents are expected to hit the roads during the holiday weekend.

Some of them were already in the middle of their trip Wednesday morning, in an effort to avoid the busier Wednesday afternoon rush.

“We actually left yesterday,” a driver heading from South Carolina to see his daughter in New Jersey told WTOP at the Dale City, Virginia, rest stop on northbound Interstate 95, before the sun came up.

He added that his strategy is “to drive though the middle of the night when there’s not many cars on the road. So far, so good, but we’re getting into rush hour, so we gotta get going again.”

Another traveler, heading to Pennsylvania had a similar idea: “I left at 10 o’clock last night, when I got off work, there was no one on the roads.”

He didn’t appear to be too affected by the missed sleep, and expected to be with his family by late Wednesday morning. “I had a cup of coffee at the first stop, but I’m used to driving.”

One traveler, who left Georgia with his family Tuesday afternoon, still had hours to go until they reach their destination. “We’re going to New Jersey, staying with family, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner,” he said.

TSA is ‘fully staffed’ in preparation for holiday travel

Reagan National was packed with travelers as the TSA expected to screen an additional 6,000 to 7,000 passengers at the airport alone on Wednesday.

Reagan National Airport Thanksgiving travel
Travelers waiting on a long line for security at Reagan National Airport. (WTOP/Shayna Estulin)

TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein told WTOP that the agency is ready to check and screen passengers.

“We are fully staffed across the country at our checkpoints,” Farbstein said.

She advised those waiting in line to take out whatever was in your pocket and put it all in your carry-on bags to keep things moving.

Farbstein said that passengers who are traveling with holiday food that are solids, such as whole turkeys, are allowed through security, but liquids and anything spreadable like gravy has to be checked.

Security lines ebbed and flowed during the morning. Around 6:30 a.m., the line to get through the north security checkpoint stretched far and around the information desk, but at other times the security area cleared considerably. In the afternoon, it was a steady flow at the TSA PreCheck line, WTOP’s Scott Gelman, who was at the airport, said.

Passengers told WTOP that they were expecting a busier than normal travel day and many of them came extra early.

“I made sure to come two hours before,” Georgetown University student David Stewart said.

Annie, who’s traveling to Boston, said that she’s never seen such a long line at an airport.

“Usually, I breeze through it and it is a little surprising. But it’s also the day before Thanksgiving,” she said.

WTOP’s Tadiwos Abedje contributed to this story.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

Shayna Estulin

Shayna Estulin joined WTOP in 2021 as an anchor/reporter covering breaking news in the D.C. region. She has loved radio since she was a child and is thrilled to now be part of Washington’s top radio news station.

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