Turkey, dressing and . . . gridlock

November 25, 1992|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

It's too late. You should have left already.

Travel this Thanksgiving holiday weekend will be the heaviest in at least seven years, according to the American Automobile Association, as 29 million Americans venture 100 miles or more to eat their turkey and dressing.

For many travelers, that means airport gridlock, standing-room-only trains and buses and lines at toll booths and bathroom stops at overcrowded interstate waysides.

At least 120,000 cars -- 30,000 more than on a typical day -- were expected to pass through the Fort McHenry toll plaza on Interstate 95 between last night and tonight. And toll authorities say traffic could be even heavier because of the unseasonably warm weather.

The weatherman is calling for a chance of showers through Thanksgiving Day, but daytime temperatures should climb to the low 60s.

"With clear roads and warmer temperatures, traffic should be even heavier than normal," said Cpl. Ralph Mallory of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages the state's toll plazas.

Nationwide, AAA predicts that 24.2 million people will travel by automobile, light truck or recreational vehicle during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, traditionally the busiest holiday season of the year. An additional 4.7 million are expected to take a plane, train or bus.

The association attributes the increased road travel to stable gasoline prices, which are largely unchanged in Maryland since the state tacked on a nickel-a-gallon tax in May, and to the continued popularity of short vacations in tight economic times.

"There's a little more optimism, a little more interest in travel thisThanksgiving compared to last year," said Jerry Cheske, a spokesman for AAA in Orlando, Fla.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, officials expect 44,000 passengers -- 18,000 more than average -- to leave by late today and return Sunday.

"By tomorrow [Wednesday], you'll start to feel the festivity of the hustle and bustle," said Carol Riley, a spokeswoman for BWI.

Amtrak, which expects a 2 percent increase in Thanksgiving passengers over last year, will be operating 72 additional trains between Washington and Boston and adding cars to other trains in the heavily traveled Northeast corridor.

Some reserved seats are still available between Washington and Boston, although long-distance routes to Florida and Chicago "are pretty well packed," said Howard Robertson, a spokesman for Amtrak in Washington.

"There's not an abundance of seats anywhere in our system," said Mr. Robertson, who noted that daily traffic is expected to hit 81,000, compared with 61,000 normally.

Bus companies, providing the most economical public transportation, report jumps in holiday travel as passengers seek low fares.

"It's going to be extraordinarily heavy," said Robert Schwarz, vice president of the Peter Pan bus company, which this summer began service from Baltimore to New York. "All indications are it's going to be a banner year because people are looking for a cheaper, alternative means of transportation."

At BWI, the number of passengers is expected to remain roughly the same as last year because of cutbacks in departures by the financially troubled USAir, which handles 60 percent of the airport's daily service.

Susan Young, a spokeswoman for USAir in Arlington, Va., said most USAir flights are booked for peak times, but passengers who can leave tomorrow and return Friday or Saturday might find seats. She said restrictions requiring a Saturday stay-over have been lifted to accommodate holiday travelers.

Local travel agents say travelers have taken advantage of discounts offered during a minor fare war this month. The cut rates, which ended in mid-November, were as low as $200 for a round trip to Florida.

Passengers leaving BWI this holiday are urged to park on the upper level of the parking garage across from the terminal. Anyone picking up passengers, Ms. Riley said, should park on the lower level, directly across from the baggage area.

Flashing signs on the main roadways to BWI will alert passengers when the lot is full. But, she pointed out, there is constant turnover in the garage, and the airport has added 235 parking spaces behind the garage during the holidays.

But whether you are traveling by plane, train or bus, you are advised to leave yourself plenty of time. Says Ms. Young of USAir:

"The best advice is pack light, get there early, hope for good weather and have a good sense of humor."

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