Ted Buehner’s wonderful adventure holiday travel guide
Listen up, it’s Christmas time and you gotta get where you’re going. About 113 million people are expected to travel for the Christmas holiday weekend period nationwide, according to AAA. That’s about 3% more than last year. The majority will travel at least 50 miles by car with the remainder flying or taking a train.
Here is what you need to know before you go.
Good news here. For those driving on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and anytime during the rest of the year to past New Year’s Day, much warmer and wet weather is in store for Western Washington. Until then though, the deep freeze will continue with Thursday night and Friday being the messy transition period back to milder wet weather.
The transition will involve snow, then areas of freezing rain before evolving to plain old rain later on Friday. Travel during this period of time is not recommended. If last-minute holiday shopping is on the to-do list, Friday night and Saturday offer opportunities to take care of that shopping with warmer temperatures and wet roads.
If heading across the Cascades, plan on delays with snow and the potential of avalanche control. Be sure to carry chains and other cold weather provisions, and be ready to use the chains if conditions require. Eastern Washington will remain cold with snow at times, but temperatures will moderate from the single digits of late.
If you wish to avoid delays and frustration in traffic, plan to travel before or after the following peak times based on Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) holiday weekend travel charts compiled over years of traffic data.
If heading over Stevens Pass, the heaviest travel days eastbound will be on Friday and Saturday. Just remember the weather in the mountains on Friday is going to be hazardous with snow and freezing rain. The holiday itself on Sunday will have lighter traffic volumes. Returning westbound finds the heaviest traffic volumes on Monday from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. And if you’re going up to enjoy the slopes, remember parking is limited, and parking on the shoulder of US 2 is not permitted.
If planning to use Snoqualmie Pass on I-90, heading to the eastside is busiest on Thursday and Friday. Again, Friday’s weather will be nasty up there. Returning from Eastern Washington or even going east across the pass will be quite busy on Monday. The peak drive times range from about 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in both directions. To stay on top of pass conditions, use the WSDOT pass report Twitter account.
If you are heading south toward Portland, Thursday through Saturday are all busy from mid-morning to each evening. The return trip finds the heaviest traffic volumes on Monday and Tuesday again from mid-morning to each evening.
There are no travel charts heading north toward Bellingham but expect similar higher traffic volumes to those heading toward Portland during the holiday weekend time period. For road condition updates anywhere in the state, visit the WSDOT roads Twitter site.
If you plan to use the ferry system, keep in mind that Washington State Ferries continues to have a staffing shortage and may have to adjust schedules. For the latest on ferry schedules, visit their Twitter site. The busiest ferry crossing dates westbound are Thursday through Saturday, and eastbound on Monday and Tuesday.
The other good news for holiday travel is at the gas pump. Prices have continued to tumble since Thanksgiving, reaching the lowest prices in over a year and a half. As of this past weekend, the average price across Washington was well below $4.00 at $3.83 per gallon of regular petrol. Some stations on both sides of the Cascades are now offering gas at around $3.00 a gallon.
If flying through Sea-Tac Airport for the holiday weekend, it is a busy place, and the cold weather is not helping. The airport has limited room and resources for de-icing aircraft, and many air carriers have been proactive in trimming their schedules at a time when travel demand is high. Close to 1 million passengers are expected to move through the airport during the holiday time period with Friday being the busiest day. Unfortunately, the inclement winter weather will offer even more challenges on Friday.
TSA security checkpoints will be busiest from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and again from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. The airport has a new SEA Spot Saver TSA screening reservation program that does not involve any membership. You can schedule your appointment for security screening in advance, resulting in reduced wait times. SEA Spot Saver is used from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. at TSA Checkpoints 2 and 5, and from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. at Checkpoint 3 for all airline passengers.
Parking and drop offs/pickups of passengers will also be challenging at the airport. North Sound travelers are encouraged to use the new Northgate Sound Transit Light Rail to reach the airport in a cost-effective and timely manner. Authorities ask passengers to arrive two hours ahead of their flight times and preferably three hours in advance. If driving to the airport, the arrival level can be used to drop passengers off since the departure level above will be quite busy.
Snohomish County’s Paine Field is a different story. The Paine Field passenger terminal will be busier than normal but have far less congestion than that at Sea-Tac. According to the Paine Field website, flight schedules have remained close to on time. Alaska Airlines currently has 10 daily departures from Paine Field including a new route to Anchorage. Kenmore Air also has flights to and from the San Juan Islands.
Amtrak rail service to and from the North Sound also will be busy but has enough capacity. Amtrak says the busiest travel days are Thursday and Friday before the holiday, and Monday and Tuesday for return trips.
Wherever you travel this holiday weekend, plan ahead in avoid stress, travel safely, and enjoy your holiday weekend with family and friends.
Follow Ted Buehner, the KIRO FM news meteorologist on Twitter