Holiday crowds hit the road

December 29, 2008|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,john-john.williams@baltsun.com

Darcey Rakestraw and her 2-year-old daughter Amel munched on a grilled chicken Caesar salad as they sat on a bench outside of the bustling Maryland House yesterday afternoon in near 70-degree weather.

The pit stop was the second on their way home to Alexandria, Va., from Tarrytown, N.Y., where they had been visiting family friends since the day after Christmas.

"It has been a pretty uneventful trip," Rakestraw said, adding that uneventful is a good thing when you're the mother of a toddler.

Unseasonably warm weather and low gas prices gave motorists the perfect incentives to take to the roads yesterday despite projections from AAA Mid-Atlantic of a decline in holiday traffic volume from last year. The organization predicted traffic volume would be down 2.1 percent nationally and 1.5 percent in Maryland. Despite more than a 50 percent drop in gasoline prices since mid-July, officials from AAA said they expected travel Christmas week to be the lowest since 2002. This year, AAA also predicted decreases in travel for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

Of the 1.3 million Marylanders expected to travel during Christmas week, more than 1 million were expected to drive.

"The good thing about this holiday is that gas prices are low," said Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA. Still, Averella said, she thinks the struggling economy is keeping many people from traveling.

At Maryland House, which is among the busiest travel plazas in the country, employees noticed a steady number of visitors.

"We've had very strong sales," said Michele Gentry, a manager at Phillips Seafood Express in the travel plaza near Aberdeen. "Yesterday was definitely our busiest day. We're having a strong day today."

Gentry attributed the steady business to lower gas prices, good weather and Ravens game-day traffic, which, she said, "usually helps out."

Officials at BWI Marshall Airport said they did not notice a large change in travel volume. Airport officials said it was too early to compare the Christmas travel season to Thanksgiving because people will continue to travel through the end of the year.

"It's going very well," said airport spokesman Jonathan Dean. "Travel has gone very smoothly for Thanksgiving and Christmas."

Dean, like others associated with the travel and tourism industry, said they are gearing up for the next busy travel period: inauguration week.

"The inauguration period will bring a nice bump to a slow period," Dean said.

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