After driving more than 14 hours on a return trip from visiting relatives in Athens, Ga., the Daniel family got out of the rain and sat down to a table of fried seafood dinners yesterday afternoon at an Interstate 95 rest stop in Harford County.
They just beat other motorists returning from Thanksgiving visits who were rushing to grab a spot in growing lines in front of the fast-food restaurants at Maryland House near Aberdeen.
The family of five from the Philadelphia suburb of Sicklerville, N.J., has made it a habit of stopping at the travel plaza on road trips along the East Coast.
"It's convenient," said Maria Daniel, an attorney and professor. "There are so many options. You can gas up. It also gives us hope that we are close to home."
The Daniel family was among the throngs of Americans who hit the road for Thanksgiving. Even though gasoline prices have dropped 52 percent since mid-July, officials from AAA Mid-Atlantic said they expected travel Thanksgiving week to be the lowest since 2002. But many motorists interviewed yesterday - including the Daniel family - said that lower gas prices provided an extra incentive to travel.
"The gas prices are outstanding," said Valdon Daniel II, a middle school mathematics teacher, who said he paid $1.59 a gallon for gas in North Carolina.
Maryland House officials said the number of visitors - 19,000 - this Thanksgiving holiday matched last year.
"Most people are saying how good it was to get out of the house," said Vern Bingham, general manager of Maryland House, which is among the busiest travel plazas in the country. Bingham said that the Thanksgiving holiday period brings the heaviest traffic to Maryland House each year.
"The low gas prices gave them an excuse to go," Bingham said. "Now they have to get back home. Their spirits are good."
Although heavy rain slowed traffic along interstates in Maryland yesterday, state police reported few traffic-related accidents. Of the eight fender-benders reported along I-95 as of late afternoon, three generated accident reports. And none of the accidents resulted in injury, according to Sgt. Michael Tagliaferri, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police.
At BWI Marshall Airport, there was a 2.5 percent drop in travel this holiday week compared with last year, officials said. About 648,000 passengers flew out of the airport, including 79,000 yesterday, the airport's busiest day.
"Things moved very well at BWI all week," said airport spokesman Jonathan Dean.
BWI fared better than Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where 50 flights were canceled because of Illinois' first snowstorm of the season.
Amtrak reported a "strong holiday period" last week.
"We are not sure if it beat last year's numbers," said Marc Magliari, a Chicago-based spokesman for Amtrak. "The economy in '08 is a very different economy."
Magliari reported no significant problems in service for Amtrak's Northeast corridor.
At Maryland House, the Daniel children, Aliyah, 7, Valdon III, 5, and Ananda, 3, were finishing off the last of their french fries. The family was getting ready to get on the road to finish the last leg of their trip.
"We've done art projects, watched videos, and caught up on some good old-fashioned sleep," Maria Daniel said with a laugh, as she pointed to Aliyah, who the family agreed had gotten the most sleep during the trip.
Aliyah said she dreamed about visiting the White House. Her brother Valdon quickly interjected that he used the time in the car to watch his favorite video, Shark Tales.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.