This Thanksgiving weekend: Turkey and snarled traffic

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Despite the onslaught of hurricanes, fires and tornadoes this year, Americans still have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving Day — and they’re taking to their cars to do it.

During the five-day Thanksgiving holiday from Wednesday to Sunday, which is traditionally one of the busiest travel periods, 45.5 million people will be on the roads. That’s more than a 3 percent increase over last year. And they’ll join the nearly 4 million in flight above them and the more than 1 million riding the rails to embark on the most hectic Thanksgiving holiday weekend since 2005, according to the annual AAA travel survey.

But it comes at a cost, particularly for white-knuckled drivers caught in traffic at major highway interchanges or near airports. “Travel times in the most congested cities in the U.S. during the holiday weekend could be as much as three times longer than the optimal trip,” predicted the AAA, a federation of motor clubs with more than 56 million members.

And that’s just one scenario awaiting those who’ll drive during what should be a happy occasion. Another is that a good portion of the worst traffic jams will occur even before the weekend’s official start. Snarled roads will begin on Tuesday evening during the 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. commuter hour, when holiday travelers trying to leave early to avoid expected delays the following morning could bump into — in some cases literally — those trying to get home from work.

The bumper-to-bumper mayhem is expected to be the worst in metro areas like Chicago around the interchange of I-90 and I-19; in Los Angeles on the infamous I-5 at Valley View Avenue and in New York on Long IsIand’s I-495 where it intersects with NY 106/NY 107.

When it comes to airport gridlock, the worst times again are on Tuesday evening as travelers from Manhattan struggle to reach JFK Airport via the Long Island Expressway, or grapple with traffic en-route to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on the Kennedy Expressway.

Nearly 90 percent of those traveling 50 miles or more will do so by car. And as expected, the holiday will have a higher toll in highway casualties. The National Safety Council said the Thanksgiving highway death toll in recent years has averaged almost 400. According to AAA, last year’s toll was 533 fatalities. 

Thanks to a good economy — and more jobs — the higher cost of gasoline won’t affect travel. Drivers will pay the highest Thanksgiving holiday gas prices since 2014, an average of $2.54 per gallon, or 37 cents more than last November. Conversely, AAA said air travel will cost less — a 23 percent fare drop from last year. But this savings will be spent on car rentals, which will hit a four-year high at $70 per day.

AAA warned that, in addition to traffic snarls, car problems could strand motorists. It said it expects to rescue more than 330,000 drivers this Thanksgiving holiday, most due to lockouts, flat tires and dead batteries. AAA noted that a quick inspection by a trusted repair shop might keep more people on the road and headed toward their turkey dinner.

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