Arian Guzman and her husband will be two of the estimated 4.4 million Californians traveling by car for Thanksgiving this week, but the Bay Area couple is doing it right. They'll be leaving Tuesday for Chandler, Ariz., and returning early Saturday -- missing the worst travel times on both trips.

Smart folks, said Joe McConnell, the traffic reporter at KQED.

"If you're traveling Wednesday, it's not enough to say leave early," McConnell said. "Early doesn't mean 1 or 2 p.m., which might work on a typical afternoon. It's 10 or 11 at the latest. The window of opportunity is minuscule if you hope to escape the Bay Area before everyone else."

The Thanksgiving holiday travel rush starts early, as travelers head for the Oakland Interational Airport on Nov. 22, 2004.
The Thanksgiving holiday travel rush starts early, as travelers head for the Oakland Interational Airport on Nov. 22, 2004. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff file)

It's also wise to avoid traveling on Thanksgiving Day, especially from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. -- "it can be horrendous," McConnell warns -- as well as on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Another reason to avoid getting into the car Wednesday is safety on the road. Traffic officials call it Black Wednesday, and a survey by Progressive Insurance reported that parking and rear-end accidents go up 24 percent, collision claims jump 17 percent and property damage claims increase 14 percent on that day.

The California Highway Patrol will be out in force through Dec. 1. Already freeway signs have been warning drivers against driving while using a cellphone. Numerous drunken-driving checkpoints will be set up, and you'd better buckle up. Of the 25 people killed on state roads over the Thanksgiving holiday last year, 10 were not wearing a seat belt.

"Buckle up, stay off your cellphone and don't drink and drive," said Russia Chavis of the California Office of Traffic Safety.

Out of 5.1 million Californians expected to travel 50 miles or more during the four-day holiday, 4.4 million will drive, 500,000 will fly and 193,000 will travel in some other way, according to the AAA.

Overall, travel is predicted to be down less than 4 percent from last year.

But there are pluses to this holiday. Gas prices have fallen nearly 50 cents a gallon since early September, the weather should be clear and passengers 12 and younger and 75 and older no longer have to remove their shoes to go through airport security.

The drive to Lake Tahoe should be the smoothest in years. Caltrans early this year completed a decade-long repaving of Interstate 80 from the Bay Area to the Nevada state line.

"I don't think I saw one pothole," marveled Tracy Diaz, of Hayward, who drove it recently. "What a positive change."

Travel experts advise planning ahead, whether going by SUV or 747.

That means making sure your plane is going to depart on time, arriving at least 90 minutes early for a domestic flight and two hours for an international departure.

"The season is already stressful enough," said Jamie Holter, a traffic analyst with INRIX. "A little knowledge and a little preplanning can help drivers get the most out of their holiday season. No one likes to be late to parties or dinner because they are stuck in traffic."

Officials at San Jose International project a 5 percent increase in passengers from this time last year, while those at the San Francisco and Oakland airports forecast up to a 2 percent increase.

Parking lots could fill up by early Wednesday, so consider being dropped off by someone or waiting at a cellphone lot to pick someone up.

For Guzman, the main worry is whether to take I-5 (shorter) or Highway 101 (less traffic).

"I'd like to try 101, but 5 seems faster," she said. "The traffic is so bad on 5, could it be better on 101?"

Could be, but of course there's another way to beat the Thanksgiving traveling blues.

"Not going anywhere," said Bryan Grunwald, of Oakland. "I am not crazy."

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.