WASHINGTON – Thanksgiving travelers should take a tip from the Boy Scouts before leaving home this year — be prepared.
Experts warn that while numbers of travelers might be down from last year, there are more than enough people with long-distance trips planned to create a headache for anyone traveling by planes, trains or automobiles.
And the usual Thanksgiving travel hassles will be compounded this year by new security measures enacted after Sept. 11, prompting travel experts to advise people to make plans early and to leave plenty of extra time.
“We don’t want people to let their guard down and think they’re going to jump on I-95 and think they’re going to get wherever they want to go,” said Myra Wieman, a spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association in the mid- Atlantic. “It’s important to note there are still plenty of people on the roads.”
And that goes for trains, buses, and planes, too. While air travel is expected to be down sharply, other sectors of the travel business are likely to pick up the slack. Even airport officials are warning passengers to arrive at least two hours early for peak-time flights.
All airlines are expecting heaviest travel on Wednesday and Sunday, although Tara Hamilton, public affairs manager for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said she has seen holiday travel times creep out over a longer period of time over the years.
“In the past, actually we would see crowds even the weekend before Thanksgiving,” Hamilton said. “It’s tended over the years to spread out more because people are trying to avoid the crowds.”
Hamilton said she could not provide estimates on the number of travelers expected to go through National and Dulles over the holiday, except to predict which days would be heaviest.
Baltimore/Washington International Airport spokeswoman Melanie Miller expects 1.6 million passengers at BWI over Thanksgiving, a drop of 8 percent from last year. Despite that drop, however, she was urging travelers to leave plenty of time to get to the airport and get through security.
While the airlines struggle, carriers like Amtrak are in fact making gains. Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said ridership has spiked several times this fall, especially in the days immediately following the attacks.
Tickets can be bought the same day as travel, but Black recommends making purchases at least a day ahead of time.
In previous years, passengers could buy unreserved seats at any point before train departure. From Tuesday to next Monday, all Amtrak seats will be reserved, meaning passengers will have to buy a ticket for a specific seat.
The temporary change is intended to enhance security measures already taken by Amtrak, including extra uniformed and undercover train police officers on board and extra monitoring of stations and tracks for suspicious activity.
Although the number of expected motorists nationwide is down by a half million from last year, to 30 million, that is still 1.5 million more travelers than on Memorial Day in 2001, according to the AAA. With that in mind, Wieman suggests drivers avoid the roads on the Wednesday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving Day, typically the dates for the heaviest travel.
She also suggests a thorough inspection of all vehicles to prevent holiday-ruining highway breakdowns.
“Getting the car towed to a station, and then getting it fixed in time to get to that holiday dinner is going to be hard to do,” Wieman said, noting that most mechanics will be understaffed for the holiday.
After checking the oil and tires, Wieman suggests drivers keep an emergency kit on-hand just in case. Include a blanket, flashlight, jumper cables and flares or reflective warning triangles. Keep a jug of water where the heater will prevent freezing while the car is running. A cell phone is also good to have around in case of a problem.