Marylanders poised to begin annual Thanksgiving travel

Motorists heading north on Interstate 95 will find the traditional rest stop for 60 years, the Maryland House, is closed for renovations.
Motorists heading north on Interstate 95 will find the traditional rest stop for 60 years, the Maryland House, is closed for renovations. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)

Mara Kaminowitz knows the roads. That's why the professional mapmaker and her husband will be taking the train to New York City to celebrate Thanksgiving with family.

"That's our strategy for how to deal with holiday traffic — avoid I-95 at all costs," said Kaminowitz, a Columbia resident who works as a mapmaker for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which studies regional issues including transportation.

Marylanders will begin heading for the exits this weekend, kicking off the traditional trek to somewhere else to gorge on food and fellowship. While there will be a lot of travelers on the rails and in the skies, a AAA Mid-Atlantic survey to be released Friday indicates that most Maryland residents with travel plans — 91 percent — will be going by car.

About 883,000 travelers — or roughly one in six residents — are going somewhere for the holiday, according to the survey. That's still below pre-recession levels but a slight increase over last year, as travel has rebounded incrementally since 2008. This year most are driving, another 7 percent are flying and 2 percent will be relying on train, bus or ship.

"Driving remains the way to go here in Maryland," said AAA spokeswoman Ragina Averella. "We're in a really good location on the East Coast, with many destinations two to four hours away. For a family with two or three children, it's cheaper to drive than fly."

The survey was conducted in early October, before Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast, which may alter travel plans and keep more people at home, Averella said. But one thing is certain: The economy is still playing a role in the decision-making process.

Air travel is expected to be down nearly 2 percent, while bus and train travel is up 13.5 percent, the survey shows.

"People are still feeling a significant financial stress and are looking ahead to Christmas expenses, so it's not surprising they will trade in long-haul flights for shorter trips in their car," she said.

That said, the national picture is a lot brighter than Thanksgiving 2008, when just 37.8 million people traveled versus a projected 43.6 million this year, Averella said.

In Maryland, officials are advising travelers to plan routes and schedules carefully to avoid delays.

The State Highway Administration would like motorists to use Maryland 511 Direct, an email- and text-driven system new this holiday season. Drivers can register online at md511.org for customized alerts about major incidents, delays, estimated travel times and weather conditions.

"Folks spend days and hours planning the menu, but they don't spend any time planning the route," said SHA spokeswoman Lora Rakowski. "Maryland 511 Direct is a traffic crystal ball that takes the mystery out of what's five miles up the road."

Maryland Transportation Authority officials suggest off-peak travel times: Tuesday and Wednesday before 6 a.m. and after 11 p.m. and Thursday through Sunday before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m. Streaming video from traffic cameras can be viewed at mdta.maryland.gov.

The agency estimates that more than 2.7 million vehicles will pass through one of the state's bridges or tunnels between Tuesday and a week from Sunday — about that same as last year.

Another potential glitch for those headed north: The Maryland House on Interstate 95 in Harford County will be closed to Thanksgiving travelers for the first time in a half-century. The neo-Georgian brick building, which served 2.8 million visitors annually, is being razed to make way for a contemporary structure featuring glass panels and a sweeping M-shaped roofline that will reopen late next year.

Motorists are being urged to use Chesapeake House in Cecil County, off-highway restaurants and gas stations, or the Delaware Welcome Center.

HMSHost, which operated both Maryland and Chesapeake houses for 25 years until the contract changed hands in September, has seen "an increase of about 25 to 30 percent" at the Delaware Welcome Center, which it also runs, said company spokeswoman Sarah Cody.

"We are prepared for the influx at the Delaware Welcome Center and have extended our hours of operation, and increased staffing and products," Cody said of the company's Thanksgiving preparations.

The State Highway Administration is suspending all non-emergency road work from 9 a.m. Wednesday until Nov. 26. But motorists returning from the Eastern Shore should keep in mind that the left lane on westbound U.S. 50 over U.S. 301 near Queenstown remains closed for bridge reconstruction. To get by the bottleneck, take Route 213 northbound near Wye Mills to 301 south of Centreville and then rejoin U.S. 50.

"Many people will be taking roads they only travel once a year, and they may come upon something they didn't anticipate. It's always good to have an alternate route planned," Rakowski said.

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the tempo will start to pick up on the weekend and build to a peak on Wednesday, said spokesman Jonathan Dean. The return wave will crest on Sunday and continue through Monday as travelers try to avoid the crush while squeezing in a little extra down time.

Airlines are reporting that their flights are near capacity, and some will offer additional service on Wednesday and Sunday. Southwest, for example, plans to operate some extra flights beyond its typical November schedule.

"One additional factor that certainly adds to the frenzy of Thanksgiving travel — the mix of travelers," Dean said. "At Thanksgiving and at the end-of-the-year holiday period, airports see more families traveling, along with added less-frequent travelers. And we experience less business travelers. So the makeup of travelers at the holiday time certainly adds a level of whirl and excitement."

Amtrak says it will put into service every available passenger rail car in its fleet and beef up its schedule to ensure coverage along the Northeast Corridor. Repairs have been completed to facilities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, the railroad said.

All trains running between Washington and Boston will require reservations, and the railroad expects to run at capacity on Tuesday and Wednesday and the Saturday and Sunday following Thanksgiving. Last year, the railroad carried more than 724,000 passengers nationwide during the Thanksgiving period, the most ever for the holiday.

Kaminowitz, the mapmaker, said when she bought her Amtrak tickets last Saturday, many of the trains were sold out.

"It will be a zoo," she said. "But it will be better than sitting in traffic."