Image: Holiday travelers
Elise Amendola  /  AP file
With inexperienced travelers flying over Thanksgiving and more inexperienced screeners working the airports, you've got a perfect storm of stress and frustration, Travel columnist Rob Lovitt writes.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/22/2006 7:05:43 PM ET 2006-11-23T00:05:43

Thirty eight million.

According to the folks at AAA, that’s the estimated number of Americans who will travel more than 50 miles over the Thanksgiving holiday this year. If historical statistics hold true, that means approximately 31 million will drive, 5 million will fly, and 2 million will take the train or other transportation.

In other words, it will only feel like all 38 million are in front of you in line.

They won’t be, of course, but with the busiest travel period upon us, you should still be prepared for hassles and delays. With airfares up, gas prices down, and security measures more confusing than ever, planning ahead is paramount. Whether you’re heading for home, going to Grandma’s, or getting together with friends, here’s a look at what to expect along the way:

On the road
A few years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation determined that the average long-distance driving trip for Thanksgiving was 214 miles (round trip). Hit the road at the wrong time and what would normally be a few hours’ drive can feel like days.

Not surprisingly, traffic is typically at its worst on Wednesday afternoon as homebound commuters, working truckers, and holiday travelers come together like herds of turtles sporting garlands of red lights. If you can, go Tuesday and you’ll beat the other holiday drivers. If not, wait until Thursday morning and you’ll miss most of the commuters and truckers.

When it’s time to head home, Friday may be your best bet. People who travel short distances for their turkey tend to eat, veg out for a few hours, and beat feet on Thursday evening. Those who go further often stay the weekend, enjoying extra family time and a few more leftovers. Split the difference and your biggest problem may be avoiding getting run over by the sales-crazed masses heading for the mall.

As for gas, the good news is that prices have come down substantially from the summer, dropping from a national average of $2.98 in July to $2.20 in early November. The bad news is they probably won’t slip any further.

In the air
Get ready for a bit of turbulence. With more people flying and no increase in the number of flights, planes are flying fuller than ever. Worse yet, more of your seatmates will likely be infrequent flyers, traveling for the first time since the latest round of security measures were implemented in October. Add in high turnover at TSA (translation: more inexperienced screeners), and you’ve got a perfect storm of stress and frustration.

Please, for the sake of everybody else, know the new security regs and follow them, no matter how annoying or nonsensical they seem. Regarding liquids and gels, the TSA is now promoting what its calling the 3-1-1 rule: 3-ounce containers (or smaller) in one quart-sized, clear-plastic, zip-topped bag, and only one such bag per person, to be placed in a screening bin.

Don’t — I repeat, don’t — put three ounces of shampoo in a six-ounce bottle or additional bottles in a second zip-topped bag. Both are no-nos. Of course, even if you follow the rules assiduously, be prepared for long, slow lines. I guarantee somebody somewhere up the line won’t have gotten the memo.

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On a happier note, Thanksgiving Day and the day after are relatively quiet days for air travel, which means there may still be seats available at surprisingly reasonable prices. Earlier this month, Northwest Airlines announced a “Super Bargain Day” sale designed to fill those empty seats, and several other airlines have followed suit. Naturally, seats are limited and restrictions apply.

On the rails
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Thanksgiving is also the busiest time of year for train travel. In fact, Amtrak ridership during the week around the holiday is expected to jump 30 percent over the average week — and 80 percent on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving vs. the average Wednesday.

In anticipation, the company is adding 63 extra trains to its holiday schedule. Look for additional runs between New York and Washington, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis, and Seattle and Portland. In California, additional cars will be added to select runs on the San Joaquin and Pacific Surfliner routes.

Note, too, that reservations will be required on the Surfliner during the holiday week — it’s usually non-reserved — echoing Amtrak service in the Northeast, which is all-reservation all the time. Advance reservations are not required on most other routes, but they are highly recommended.

Finally, keep in mind that security screening is not just for air travelers any more. This month, for example, TSA is performing random checks for explosives for train travel in Buffalo, N.Y. It’s only a pilot program, and it’s expected to end after the holiday, but it still suggests that packing extra patience will be a good idea wherever you’re heading.

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