Smartphone apps and tips to guide to Thanksgiving and back

Travelers wait to board a train ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017.
Travelers wait to board a train ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. AP

Whether by car, plane, train or bus, more Americans are expected to travel this Thanksgiving holiday than in previous years, jamming airports, roads and rails and testing the patience of fellow travelers.

According to AAA, nearly 51 million Americans — the highest number in 12 years — are expected to venture 50 miles or more from home, a 3.3 percent increase over last year. In the Washington region alone, 1.2 million people are expected to be on the move for the holiday.

AAA defines the holiday travel period as Wednesday through Sunday.

“A strong economy and labor market are generating rising incomes and higher consumer confidence, fueling a strong year for the travel industry,” said Bill Sutherland, a AAA senior vice president. He said the trend will probably extend through the remainder of the holiday season.

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents some of the nation’s largest air carriers, predicts that between Nov. 17 and Nov. 28 more than 28.5 million people will fly on U.S. airlines. AAA also says Americans will pay the cheapest holiday airfare since 2013.

Here are some tips for making it through this busy travel period.

Traveling by air

Be sure to check with your airline before heading out to get the status of your flight. Most airlines have apps that make it easier to check flight status, as well as check in or, if needed, rebook a ticket.

Airport officials recommend that you arrive at the airport at least two hours before domestic flights and three hours ahead of international travel.

Changes to airport screening

If you are flying, keep in mind that new security procedures are in place at all three of the region’s airports.

The change means that unless you are a member of TSA’s PreCheck program, in addition to your laptop, you’ll need to put any electronic device larger than a cellphone — such as e-readers and iPads — into separate bins for screening. The screening changes are prompted by worries that terrorists could hide explosives in large electronic devices.

There are no changes to what you can bring on board, but the TSA is encouraging you to declutter your bags to make it easier for screeners to get a clear look at what’s inside.

▪ One tip from the TSA: If you place food items toward the top of your bags or in separate bins for screening, you might be less likely to be pulled aside for secondary screening.

Traveling by rail

Amtrak this month unveiled refurbished train interiors for passengers who travel its Northeast and Midwest routes. The new seat cushions and carpets are part of a $16 million effort to make for a better travel experience.

At an event designed to showcase the new interiors, Mark Yachmetz, vice president for Northeast Corridor business development, said it was time for a “refresh.”

“At some point, you have to recycle the interiors and do something new,” he said. “No matter how hard you try to clean this stuff, you can’t get it clean.”

As part of that, the blue cloth seats that have been a mainstay in the fleet since the 1990s are being replaced with gray faux-leather coverings that are easier to clean and maintain. Trains in the fleet are also getting new carpet. The new seats have lumbar support. Passengers on regional trains along the Northeast Corridor may already have seen some of the changes Amtrak hopes to have completed by the spring or summer.

“The upgrades offer customers what they told us they want more of during their travels: a more comfortable refreshed look and feel,” Amtrak co-chief executive Wick Moorman said.

Last year, more than 750,000 people traveled via Amtrak during the Thanksgiving period, and a similar number is expected in 2017. Amtrak officials urge travelers to download the railroad system’s app to help smooth their traveling experience.

Amtrak set a ridership record in fiscal 2017, with 31.7 million passenger trips — an increase of 1.5 percent over the previous year. A record 12 million riders traveled the busy Northeast Corridor.

Traveling by car

Record numbers of travelers also mean the possibility of record gridlock. AAA says drivers will be paying the highest Thanksgiving gas prices since 2014, but that’s not expected to discourage drivers.

According to AAA and INRIX, a global transportation analytics company, travel in some of the nation’s most congested cities could take as much as three times longer than the optimal trip.

“This Thanksgiving nearly two out of every 10 Americans are traveling for the upcoming holiday period,” AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend II said. “With 45.5 million people . . . traveling by car over the Thanksgiving weekend, try to avoid traveling through major cities during peak travel times.”

AAA and INRIX recommend that motorists avoid hitting the roads between 4:45 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday, when travel times could be double what they normally are.

The team at Google Maps also recommends that you avoid travel in the late afternoon Wednesday. Instead, consider leaving Thanksgiving morning. To avoid the worst traffic on your way home, start your trip back early Saturday or Sunday morning, they advise.

Before you leave, be sure to update your smartphone. Plenty apps out there are designed to help you navigate the holiday rush. If you’re driving, Google Maps and Waze can help you find the best routes. And even if you can’t avoid traffic, they can at least give you an idea of how long it might take you to get where you’re going.

Also note that Virginia, Maryland and most other East Coast states are part of the 511 information system. You can dial 511 and get up-to-date information on travel conditions. AAA also has an app that will help you map your route, find cheap gas and, if necessary, request roadside assistance.

If you’re traveling with kids, be sure to have plenty of books, games and other distractions to keep peace in the back seat. Snacks and water are also a good bet, as well as an emergency kit.