Cover Story: Thanksgiving travel 2009

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It's the biggest travel week of the year made even harder this year by rock slides, higher gas prices, and rising flight costs.

It's American as it comes depicted by Norman Rockwell, Thanksgiving.  No matter your faith, it seems everyone celebrates.  It's very much a time getting together with family and friends.

But increasingly it's becoming a holiday fewer of us are traveling whether it's because of crowded roads or flights that are a bear to navigate.

In 2000, 6-point-2 million Americans flew over the Thanksgiving holiday.  Every year since then it's been considerably less.  Down this year-- to just 2-point-3 million - expected to be flying in 2009.  That's a whopping 66-percent off from a decade ago.

A majority of people if they're going to be traveling are like Charlotte insurance agent Brad Smith.. taking his wife and three kids to the North Carolina mountains to meet family.. he'll be driving.

Says Smith, "They like the mountains. We like the mountains. It just seemed to be a good fit.. kind of a neutral location for us to meet and just to get away for a few days."

But the number of Americans driving over the Thanksgiving holiday is also down dramatically in the last decade despite our population growth.  Almost 50 million Americans drove over the Thanksgiving holiday in the year 2000.  Now it's down to about 38 million.

Triple's A Tom Crosby notices the trends.  Americans' habits toward Thanksgiving are changing.  He says, "More people stay within their area or maybe visit friends in the neighborhood or just spend it with their own family at home. Yes more people stay at home than travel."

For those who drive this year could be even more challenging.  With the rock slide in western North Carolina shutting down I-40 Triple A says any of the major arteries like I-77 north or I-85 south will be more crowded than usual.. with holiday traffic and I-40's detoured traffic.

Prices for gasoline you're liable to encounter about what it is here in North Carolina.  On average about 65-cents a gallon higher than it was last Thanksgiving.

Even with the downward trend.. Thanksgiving is still Americans' biggest single travel week of the year.. and the purpose of the holiday driving it home.

"To me it's about giving thanks for how we've been blessed," says Smith.  "Whether it's families.. just our everyday lives and how blessed that we are it's a good time to recognize that."

So if you're going to drive, when are the times to avoid?

Wednesday afternoon you want to avoid.  If you're able, leave Wednesday morning or wait and travel very early Thanksgiving morning.  And on the return home avoid Sunday afternoon if at all possible.

If you normally travel Interstate 40 west to get to Tennessee and points west, here's some advice courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The N.C. DOT reminds motorists traveling through Western North Carolina to plan ahead and allow extra travel time over the Thanksgiving holiday due to the closure of Interstate 40 west of Asheville near Tennessee.

A massive rockslide closed the interstate in both directions between Exit 20 (U.S. 276) 24 miles west of Asheville in North Carolina and Exit 421 (I-81 Interchange) east of Knoxville, Tenn. It will take several months for crews to reopen the highway.

Travelers can still reach Western North Carolina via I-40 from the east and I-26 to the north and south. Exits 20 and 27 on I-40 provide access to popular destinations west of Asheville. In Tennessee, exits 432 through 451 provide access to popular destinations in southeastern Tennessee.

The detour route is 53 miles longer and is an additional 45 minutes to an hour driving time. Motorists traveling on I-40 West should take Exit 53B (I-240 West) in Asheville and follow I-240 West to Exit 4A (I-26 West). Follow I-26 West (a North Carolina Scenic Highway) to I-81 South in Tennessee. Take I-81 South and follow it back to I-40 at mile marker 421. Eastbound motorists should use the reverse directions.

Additionally, travelers cannot take U.S. 64 from North Carolina into Tennessee due to a rockslide that blocked the highway near the Ocoee 2 Dam in Polk County, Tenn., about eight miles west of North Carolina. U.S. 64 will be closed for several months.

Motorists are advised to take U.S. 74 to Tennessee 68 North at Ducktown through McMinn County, then onto I-75 at Sweetwater in Monroe County.

NCDOT reminds motorists to stay alert, obey the posted speed limit, leave early and travel at non-peak times when possible. Plan ahead before driving by visiting the NCDOT Traveler Information Management System Web site at or calling 511, the state's free travel information line, for current travel conditions.

NCDOT also provides alerts about traffic congestion, construction work and changes to the ferry schedule on Twitter.

To access them, visit