Labor Day road trip advice: Leave early, return early

Hit the road early if you want to avoid Labor Day traffic. That’s time-tested travel advice with little scientific backing — until now.

Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation app, has crunched last year’s driving data and churned out a few projections based on the patterns it discovered.

It found:

  • The best time to to drive before Labor Day is Thursday afternoon after 2 p.m. Traffic peaks between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Friday’s traffic patterns are normal for this time of the year.
  • Traffic peaks between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Saturday.
  • On Sunday, traffic peaks between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m.

“On Labor Day, travelers should wake up bright and early to head to their destinations,” says Carla Clunis, a spokeswoman for Waze. “Traffic starts to increase around noon and continues on until 3 p.m. Traffic patterns on Labor Day mimic weekend patterns over a typical work day.”

Waze’s advice reinforces what many motorists already know: If you want a sane Labor Day travel experience, avoid the crowds. But if you’re looking for deeper Labor Day travel truths, there are things the data can’t tell you, options it can’t know and strategies it can’t reveal.

Certain exceptions apply

Here’s something Waze’s data can’t divine: Conditions vary by location.

For example, I’ll be driving from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Winnipeg on Saturday. And before you say it, I know: It’s an American holiday, but Canadians are known to take Labor Day off, too. I don’t expect any traffic on the remote, 7-1/2-hour road trip, and even less traffic when we leave Winnipeg and drive west toward Vancouver.

If we were at the Jersey Shore for the Labor Day weekend, different story. I wouldn’t necessarily put my money on the Waze predictions because New York area motorists are pretty savvy. They’ll all try to get an early start. If you want a safe bet, get the kids out of bed at 4 a.m. and take the red-eye to the beach. (“I’ll sleep while I’m driving,” I tell my kids.)

Who you are matters

Another thing Waze can’t know is who you are. And that matters. I’m on a grand tour of Canada and the United States right now — 16,000 miles in 6 weeks — so for us, a little Labor Day traffic (though unlikely) is no imposition at all.

Likewise, if you’re piling the kids into the minivan to see Grandma this weekend, encountering a little bumper-to-bumper traffic is no big deal. But if you’re a busy executive with only a few hours to spare on Labor Day to see family, then these Waze projections can offer a valuable strategy that could shave time from your drive.

Don’t forget driving alternatives

Of course, you don’t have to drive to your Labor Day destination. Trains and buses will offer limited service on the holiday. (For example, NJ Transit is on a Sunday schedule, mostly.)

And there are options Waze and your local transit authority, and even, ahem, your friendly travel expert, won’t tell you about, like staying home.

This is perhaps one of the most unorthodox Labor Day travel strategies I’ve ever heard. But if Labor Day is nothing more than an opportunity to meet friends and family for a cookout — it is, in fact, dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers — then why not skip it entirely and plan the family gathering for the next weekend?

Waze’s data reinforces the conventional wisdom about Labor Day road trips — to leave early and avoid the crush of holiday traffic — but I was curious to see what else its data might show. So I asked.

“We unfortunately don’t have the raw data used for the analysis,” Clunis told me. Waze’s “internal privacy policy,” she explained, calls for all reports to typically be deleted after one year.

“Seeing as Labor Day took place earlier last year, most of the raw data is already gone,” she told me.

Well, in a few days, so will Labor Day 2015. Unless you take my advice and postpone your Labor Day to next weekend.

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