While Baltimore area air and rail lines were reporting so-so sales yesterday, traditionally the heaviest travel day of the year, price-conscious travelers were leaving the driving to Greyhound in droves.
"It's our biggest day of the year," said Kim Spero, customer service manager. "We're comparing it to 1989."
Greyhound ticket sales had slumped last year when a driver's strike hampered operations. But at noon yesterday, the day before Thanksgiving, the station was so jammed that customers couldn't get into the terminal. Ticket lines backed out onto West Fayette Street. The crowd began thinning about 1 p.m., but would grow again for expected peaks at 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Ms. Spero said.
Normally, about 64 buses move through Baltimore in a day. Yesterday, Greyhound had twice that many scheduled.
The economy may have put a damper on other forms of travel this weekend, but "you can't see it out there," Ms. Spero said, pointing to the crowded terminal where Carl Parsons was waiting for a bus to upstate New York to spend Thanksgiving with his family.
The bus company has lower prices on its side: Greyhound charges $39.25 one way from Baltimore to New York, compared to $59 on Amtrak and $187 on USAir, the carrier with the most flights at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
At the airport, spokeswoman Linda Greene said only about 500 more passengers than last year's record 44,000 were expected, an increase of about 1 percent. She added, however, that flights scheduled for Thanksgiving morning were heavily booked as travelers tried to take advantage of lower airfares for traveling at off-peak hours.
BWI's numbers reflected predictions of the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the airlines, that forecast an increase of 1 to 2 percent in Thanksgiving travel.
Early yesterday, the concourse at BWI was nearly deserted. Holly Arneson, a United Airlines ticket agent, said it was the slowest Thanksgiving she's seen in 20 years. "It's really light," she fretted. "Not that the bookings aren't full, but usually they're standing in line already."
"Ah, come back a little later," scoffed Lewis Chester, a skycap who works by the American Airlines counter. "They'll have lines all the way down the ramp."
Mr. Chester, who has worked the morning shift at the airport for five years, conceded, however, that it had been slower than usual.
The pace had picked up slightly by midday at Penn Station where railroad officials had cordoned off the waiting area to allow only passengers with tickets.
"It's something we do to help with crowd control," explained Charles Hite, a station supervisor. "We use it on most holidays." Mr. Hite said train travel had dropped off slightly this year, but he could not quantify the decrease. "We're constantly busy, but it's hard to say," he said.
Rebecca Thuss and Patrick Farrell, freshmen at nearby Maryland Institute, were lounging on a bench in the lobby waiting for their train to Philadelphia. They had gotten there an hour and a half early and had another hour to go.
"We thought it was going to be really crowded," Mr. Farrell explained. "That's why we got here when we did. We were surprised."
Outside, Edward Cohen, a taxi driver who also teaches math at the New Community College of Baltimore, was handing out meticulously hand-printed schedules of trains due into the station.
He gave lists to the Yellow Taxi's drivers and dispatchers so they know when to be at the station, he said. Drivers need to make as much as possible the day before Thanksgiving, because "there's nobody out there tomorrow," he said.
But despite the crush of travelers at Penn Station, business was not as good as it might have been, he added. Thanksgiving is a family holiday, and many of those arriving at the station are met by relatives. The business travelers who normally make up the bulk of the taxi drivers' business were not there.
Even on the highways, traffic was not as great as in previous years, according to William F. Zorzi Sr., spokesman for the American Automobile Association of Maryland.