Image: San Francisco Airport
© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
While San Francisco's airport seems to handle Thanksgiving traffic relatively well, it falls apart during the Christmas season. Throughout December 2005, nearly 22% of its flights were at least 45 minutes late—the highest rate among major airports that year. Sources: FlightStats, U.S. Department of Transportation
updated 11/16/2007 3:02:25 PM ET 2007-11-16T20:02:25
Annals of congestion

Plane, train, or automobile? Doesn't matter — avoid Chicago.

In compiling lists of the nation's worst roads, airports and rail lines for the holiday travel season, the windy city's a triple winner, the only U.S. metro appearing on all three lists. By our calculations, no holiday itinerary could be worse than flying into O'Hare and then hitting Interstate 90 to head for the suburbs or getting on Amtrak for points west.

No surprise. Chicago is the largest centrally located city in the U.S., and long-distance travel increases 25 percent during the period from Christmas to New Year's, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, most all of it domestic. Despite $3 gas and stalled airports, more people will travel this holiday than ever before.

Experts say about 27 million people will fly America's already overtaxed airlines between Nov. 16 and Nov. 27. That's a 4 percent increase over last year, with flights about 90 percent full, on average. As for rail, Amtrak says ridership shoots up an average of 36 percent on Thanksgiving weekend compared with the rest of the year. The railroad said it expects over 600,000 passengers this Thanksgiving week, about 11,000 more than last year.

Thanksgiving weekend is also the busiest time of year for the nation's roads, with the majority of trips lasting at least and hour and a quarter of them encompassing 200 miles or more, according to Mapquest.

It's all bad. But where is it worst?

Worst airports
Chicago's O'Hare International, Newark and New York's LaGuardia airport stand as the three toughest to get through, if history is any indication. From 2002 to 2006, those airports have routinely appeared at the bottom of the Department of Transportation's monthly rankings of on-time arrivals and departures in the months of November and December.

Between Nov. 22 and Nov. 30 last year, 26.1 percent  of the flights through O'Hare arrived late. Between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31, that number rose to 29.5 percent — Merry Christmas. At Newark, more than half of the airport's flights were late by at least 45 minutes last Thanksgiving, according to FlightStats, a service that tracks worldwide flight information. And La Guardia? If you're traveling there the day before turkey day, expect at least a 40 percent  chance of arriving nearly an hour late.

Worst roads
Do yourself a big favor and avoid the U.S.-101 and I-405 Interchange in Los Angeles. The "600-pound gorilla" of traffic traps, this interchange averages almost 27 million hours of delay per year. Skip the I-610 and I-10 Interchange in Houston and the I-90/94 and I-290 merge, known as the Circle Interchange in Chicago as well.

Worst train routes

Image: Sunset Limited
© St. John / Getty Images
Rail Route: Sunset Limited; Orlando-New Orleans-Houston-Los Angeles On-time arrivals: 31.6%Average delay per trip: 11.4 hours (16.8% of scheduled total)
Yikes. The California Zephyr line, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco via Denver, is on time only 4.6 percent of the time, with an average 10.5 hours of delay for a trip along the entire route, according to Amtrak. Other losers: The Coast Starlight line, from Seattle to Los Angeles, via Portland, arrives as scheduled just 13.4 percent of the time. The famous Lake Shore Limited, running from New York to Boston to Albany to Chicago is on time only 23.8 percent of the time.

How to survive
So what's a holiday traveler to do? For those flying, check as few bags as possible, don't wrap any gifts — they may need to be unwrapped to be inspected by security — use automated check-in procedures and allow plenty of time to get to the airport, the Air Transport Association, an industry group, says. And by all means, avoid Chicago, New York, Philly and San Francisco, if possible.

In fact, it helps to avoid major airports altogether when it's a feasible option. Why deal with Boston when you can go to Providence, or fly into one of New York's major city airports when there are smaller, easier options in Long Island's Islip Airport to the east and Westchester County Airport to the north?

As for driving, AAA says it pays to make an effort to know the back roads. Leave the hassle and endless stream of tail lights on the Interstate to others. Also, packing light means less weight in the car, which speeds things up and uses less gas. And if your schedule allows, leave for a Thanksgiving trip on a Tuesday and return Friday, steering clear of Wednesday and Thursday altogether.

Amtrak had no tips to offer for alleviating holiday travel headaches, other than suggesting customers make reservations as early as possible to avoid being shut out during the busiest travel time of the year. Then again, maybe staying home isn't such a bad option.

Robert Malone contributed to this report

© 2012


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