Traveling for Thanksgiving? Best and worst times to hit the roads in DC area

If you’re heading out of town for Thanksgiving, be prepared for some company on the roads.

AAA mid-Atlantic projects that almost 1.3 million D.C.-area residents will travel over the Thanksgiving holiday, with most getting behind the wheel.



To avoid the worst traffic congestion, think about hitting the road early in the morning Wednesday or before 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, according to AAA, which based its recommendations on data from traffic data firm INRIX. If you can, avoid traveling at all between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

AAA says the heaviest traffic in the metro area overall is expected Sunday morning and early afternoon on the Outer Loop of the Capital Beltway, which could see an 85% increase over typical traffic as travelers return home.

Dave Dildine, in the WTOP Traffic Center, put it most simply: “The best time to leave is the most inconvenient time to leave. If you’re fearful and looking for free flow, leave at midnight and travel through dawn.” If a slow but steady pace is OK, Thanksgiving Day should be fine. “If you’re sadomasochistic,” he said, “launch onto the mainline at 2 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon.”

He added that the traffic surge will be most pronounced on what he called “through” interstates — Interstate 95, the Capital Beltway and the narrower stretches of Interstates 270 and 81 — and he urged drivers and passengers to have perspective.

“There is no silver bullet,” Dildine said. “There is no outsmarting traffic. You can’t control traffic, but you can control your participation in it. Traffic isn’t a mess; the overreaction to traffic is a mess. Traffic is always there. Travel happens constantly; sometimes less, sometimes more. We are traffic. It’s a reflection of us and the way we live.”

Virginia

In Virginia, transportation authorities are taking a number of steps to help ease potential congestion on the roadways for the holiday, including suspending most highway work zones and lifting lane closures on interstates and major roads starting noon on Wednesday, Nov. 23, until noon the following Monday, Nov. 28.

Based on historical data, the Virginia Department of Transportation expects the heaviest congestion on:

  • Wednesday, from midmorning to evening
  • Saturday afternoon
  • All day Sunday

In addition, routes into and out of Northern Virginia are likely to be crowded from midmorning to late evening on Tuesday, Nov. 29.

For an hour-by-hour look at potential congestion based on past travel, check out VDOT’s Thanksgiving Travel Trends map. Select your day and time of travel and see historical congestion patterns.

The interactive travel map from VDOT shows historical congestion patterns around the Thanksgiving getaway. (Courtesy VDOT)

Heads up — some tolls and HOV restrictions on Northern Virginia interstates will be lifted but others will be in effect. Here’s what you need to know from VDOT:

On Thursday, Nov. 24, the following will apply on Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia:

  • Tolls and HOV restrictions will be lifted on the 66 Express Lanes Inside the Beltway between I-495 and Route 29 in Rosslyn, which are operated during rush hours on weekdays only.
  • Tolls and HOV rules (free travel with an E-ZPass Flex and two or more people in the car) will be in effect on the 66 Express Lanes Outside the Beltway between I-495/Capital Beltway and Route 29 in Gainesville in areas where the 66 Express Lanes are in operation, as designated on roadway signs.
  • HOV restrictions will be lifted on I-66 between Route 29 in Gainesville and Route 15 in Haymarket.

Maryland

In Maryland, transportation authorities are advising drivers to expect congestion between Tuesday, Nov. 22 and Sunday, Nov. 27.

The busiest time on the roads before the holiday is expected to be between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Tuesday and between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Wednesday. In Maryland, traffic is expected to be moderate on Sunday, with the most congestion between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Traffic on Thursday, Friday and Saturday is expected to be typical or lighter than average.

Washington, D.C.-area traffic forecast for Maryland, released by the Maryland Department of Transportation. (Courtesy MDOT)

MDOT’s State Highway Administration will suspend major lane closures for nonemergency work between Wednesday and Sunday to help ease some traffic congestion.

Heading to or from the Eastern Shore? Expect some delays crossing the Bay Bridge.

Best times to travel across the Bay Bridge, according to MDOT:

Eastbound

  • Tuesday, Nov. 22, and Wednesday, Nov. 23 — before 10 a.m. and after 8 p.m.;
  • Thursday, Nov. 24 — before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m.;
  • Friday, Nov. 25 — before 9 a.m. and after 8 p.m.;
  • Saturday, Nov. 26, and Sunday, Nov. 27 — before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m.; and
  • Monday, Nov. 28 — before noon and after 6 p.m.

Westbound

  • Tuesday, Nov. 22, and Wednesday, Nov. 23 — before 6 a.m. and after 6 p.m.;
  • Thursday, Nov. 24 — before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m.;
  • Friday, Nov. 25 — before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m.;
  • Saturday, Nov. 26, and Sunday, Nov. 27 — before 10 a.m. and after 8 p.m.; and
  • Monday, Nov. 28 — before 6 a.m. and after 2 p.m.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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