In Los Angeles, the official start of the Christmas season is not marked by changing foliage or fine snow dust, but by the flashing red and white taillights that meander along the 405 Freeway as millions of people leave the city for Thanksgiving.
Last year, that annual tradition was turned on its head by tightened travel restrictions amid the burgeoning winter wave of COVID-19.
However, travel experts believe the numbers will return to near pre-pandemic levels this week: an estimated 3.8 million Southern Californians will head to their vacation destinations – 9% more than last year and just 1% less than 2019, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.
Many of the country’s most popular vacation destinations are in California, including Anaheim, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Yosemite National Park, the auto club said, so drivers should be prepared for the heavy traffic.
However, not all main travel times are the same. Major metro areas will face the heaviest traffic jams from 1:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Wednesday as commuters leaving their jobs join leisure travelers on the road, the auto club said.
Los Angeles will really start to feel the crisis after 3 p.m. on Wednesday, auto club spokesman Doug Shupe said.
“It’s getting more and more crowded,” he said, adding that there will also be “pretty good traffic jams” on Tuesday night.
Experts at transportation analysis firm Inrix said the busiest local highway segment will be the 5 Freeway south from Colorado Street in the Griffith Park neighborhood to Florence Avenue in Downey, where traffic is expected to rise 385% above normal on Wednesday afternoon and evening will.
All outbound highways are likely to be congested on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, the analytics firm added, so drivers should plan to leave early and prepare for longer travel times.
Those who want to avoid the hustle and bustle can also wait until Thanksgiving morning if timetables allow, when the roads are usually clearer.
Meanwhile, those who want to fly to their festivals will also face long lines and traffic jams as air traffic is expected to increase this Thanksgiving.
Los Angeles International Airport officials estimated that 2 million passengers will travel through the terminals during the two-week Thanksgiving holiday, November 18-30. That is twice as many as last year, but still 1 million less than in 2019.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving will likely be the airport’s busiest day with an estimated 175,000 passengers, LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery said last week.
“That’s still not the pre-pandemic level, but it’s definitely the busiest we’ve had since early 2020,” he said.
Smaller regional airports are also preparing for increased passenger traffic, with Long Beach Airport officials forecasting five times more passengers than in 2020 – albeit still not quite back to 2019 levels.
The Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino also expects high numbers, officials said. Wednesday is said to be the highest point where more than 19,000 travelers are expected.
But much of the headache stays on the road as most drivers will notice rising gasoline prices along with traffic. A gallon of regular unleaded lead averaged $ 4.705 in California on Tuesday – just a tenth of a cent below the state’s all-time high on Monday.
In Los Angeles County, gasoline prices neared record levels on Tuesday at $ 4.704 per gallon. The county’s record high of $ 4.705 was reached in 2012.
The auto club found that prices can vary by as much as a dollar per gallon between some stations.
Patience and courtesy will make a huge difference on the street, too, Shupe said.
“This is the first time so many people are in touch with loved ones, and everyone is looking forward to the next few days with good food, good friends and good family,” he said. “Just know it’ll take a little longer.”
Regarding the traditional red and white taillights, he said, “We’ll see the candy cane highways of Southern California for sure.”