So you're heading out of town for Thanksgiving. Be warned: You're wading into a vast sea of people doing exactly the same thing, moving across the United States on one of the hugest travel weekends of all — with a lot of rough weather in the mix.
Fortunately, we've gathered a virtual roundtable of people who know what they're talking about when it comes to travel under intense conditions. Whether you favor planes, trains or automobiles, they've got handy advice on how to get you where you're going — and home again — with safety and minimal headaches.
Holiday drivers can usually tell in advance what route they should take — if they pay attention to weather patterns from thousands of miles away, says the warning coordination meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
"Look west," Greg Carbin says, "and you'll get a sense of what's coming."
Weather patterns typically cross the country in three to four days. So if there's stormy weather on the West Coast on Monday and in the Rockies on Tuesday, you can figure out what Wednesday and Thursday will bring.
It takes anywhere from 12 to 24 hours for a weather system to pass over a specific location in the United States. So people can avoid driving in bad weather if they are willing to shift their start times. "Do I want a head start so I can beat it, or wait until it passes?" he asks.
Carbin uses his son, Jon, a cellist, as an example. Jon Carbin played with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in Kansas City two nights before Christmas in 2009 — just as a winter storm bore down on the family home in Oklahoma.
"I told him, 'You have to get going as soon as the concert is over or else you are not going to make it,'" Greg Carbin says. "He wanted to sleep." That year, Jon Carbin joined the family Christmas dinner via Skype and ate pizza in a hotel.
— Kelly P. Kissel, Little Rock, Ark.
THE AIR-TRAVEL SPECIALIST
It might seem obvious, but the best thing a Thanksgiving traveler can do is arrive at the airport early.
There aren't necessarily more people flying; it's just that more of them are less experienced. Business travelers typically don't check bags, wear slip-on shoes for security and aren't trying to buckle fidgety toddlers into seats. So the influx of once-a-year fliers creates long lines.
"Air travelers set themselves up for failure by playing fast and loose with the clock," says George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. "It's hard for type-A personalities to wait around at airports."
There can be traffic, parking lots tend to fill up on holidays and you never know how long check-in and security lines will be.
Most airlines require your bags to be checked up to an hour early. That means you need to be at the front of the line with luggage tagged. And be at the gate at least 15 minutes before departure or you risk the plane leaving without you.
"If you find yourself with time on your hands, grab a meal before flight. More airports have very good restaurants these days," Hobica says. And if you arrive early, you might even get an earlier flight.
—Scott Mayerowitz, AP Airlines Writer, New York
THE DRIVING EXPERT
In snow, ice or rain, speed is the enemy.
Driving too fast for conditions is among the biggest mistakes people make when navigating wintry weather, says Bill Van Tassel, manager of driver education for the American Automobile Association.
"It's much harder to get into trouble if you're going at a speed where your tires can maintain traction on the surface," says Van Tassel, who holds a doctorate degree in safety education.
—Make sure you have decent tire treads and wiper blades.
—Keep eight or more seconds of driving distance behind the car in front of you.
—Expect ice on every bridge.
—Don't steer and brake at the same time.
—If there's a crash in heavy freeway traffic, generally stay belted until vehicles behind you have stopped. Only then should you move away or get out to help.
—Tom Krisher, AP Auto Writer, Detroit
THE PACKING ARTIST
First, pack a suitcase with everything you'll need. Then take half of it out. That's the not-so-tongue-in-cheek advice from Rudy Maxa, who knows a thing or two about packing.
Maxa hosted National Public Radio's "Savvy Traveler" show and is heard on more than 140 radio stations. On Tuesday, unsurprisingly, he was traveling.
If you can't bear to part with too many clothing items, Maxa says, at least be efficient. "You shouldn't bring anything you can't mix and match and change around," he says. "Everything you pack should go with everything else you pack."
Maxa recommends shipping items ahead. That includes holiday gifts — the ones you're giving and the ones you'll receive at your destination. Don't worry, he says, if your bag is checked at the gate because the overhead compartments are filled: That will probably mean a shorter wait at your destination.
—David Porter, Newark
THE PLOW BOSS
Mark Fischbach says motorists who encounter roads that are slushy, icy, snowy or just plain nasty need to keep two words in mind: Be patient.
Fischbach has more than 20 years of snowplow-driving experience in Minnesota, a state that knows frigid winters. He knows snowplows are big — weighing up to 17-times more than a car — and sometimes slow, but he says motorists need to give plow drivers space to do their jobs.
"I've seen people try to pass a snowplow by trying to go through a ditch. That's pretty crazy ... they ended up getting stuck," he said. "We're out there because the roads are slippery."
Fischbach, who works for the Minnesota Department of Transportation and currently oversees snow and ice removal on 5,500 miles of highway lanes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, also says motorists can do themselves a favor by verifying the basics: that their tires, brakes, headlights and windshield wipers are in working order.
And, he says, drivers need to slow down in inclement weather.
Fischbach says he loved driving a snowplow. "During the middle of the night, when it was snowing and everything was white, it was just so beautiful," he says. "Until the snow started turning brown."
—Amy Forliti, Minneapolis
THE APP GUY
"Stay home. Have your butcher spatchcock your turkey," says Apple's former chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki, who constantly travels in and out of the Silicon Valley. But if you must go, he says, the It app for road warriors is Flightboard.
"It enables you to see the flight board in airports," he explains. Any airport.
Why is this important? "Let's say you're connecting through Denver to get to San Francisco. You find out that your flight is delayed because of fog," he says.
Fog slithers in and out of Bay area airports at this time of year. It can cling to San Francisco's runways for hours, hover above Oakland, or nestle in at San Jose. With this app, travelers can figure out which airports are open and what flights are heading there.
Other app thoughts: Gogobot, Tripomatic and Viator offer ways to spend time away from the Thanksgiving table while on vacation, and Packing Pro is a peacemaker for parents helping the family figure out what to bring.
—Martha Mendoza, AP National Writer, San Jose, Calif.
THE TRAIN-PASSENGER ADVOCATE
For a smoother train trip, get to the station early. And don't forget your smartphone. It can help you keep track of any possible delays.
You should arrive at the station at least 45 minutes before departure time, says Ross Capon, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which advocates for better rail service in the United States. Arriving early gives you a better shot of picking where you want to sit. Most trains don't have assigned seating, so if you're traveling with friends or family you have better chance of sitting together by getting to the station early.
Amtrak riders should download its app, which will alert you to the status of any train if you input its number.
Amtrak also posts any delays or disruptions on its Twitter accounts. Different regions have different accounts. Delays on the Northeast corridor are posted at Twitter.com/AmtrakNEC, for example. Do an online search before to see which account to follow.
—Joseph Pisani, AP Business Writer, New York
THE HIGHWAY EMERGENCY TRAINER
Around Atlanta, where traffic is notoriously snarled during normal rush hour, holiday travel can be especially tough.
"We have gridlock traffic all day long," says Elnora Redd, a driver and field training officer with the Georgia Department of Transportation's Highway Emergency Response Operator, or HERO, program.
To avoid the worst of it, people should try to leave a day or so early if possible, she said. But if meetings and other work demands don't allow that, the best time to get on the road is in the early morning hours, even before it's light out.
HERO drivers in bright yellow trucks help clear highways after accidents and assist stranded motorists. During the holiday travel period, their work multiplies as harried drivers, often distracted by relatives and pets, try to leave town.
"People are not paying attention and doing the things they need to do," Redd says.
In her job, Redd has seen it all. A few Thanksgivings back, she stopped to help an elderly couple with a flat tire. They had a Michigan license plate and were bound for a winter in Florida.
"By the time I pulled up, 'grandma' was letting 'grandpa' have it. He had a flat tire and he had no idea what to do," Redd says. "She told him he was too old to be out changing the tire and that she was supposed to be suntanning in Florida."
—Kate Brumback, Atlanta