Traffic is never fun. On a typical weekday, backups in Boston can stretch for miles in any direction, but getting out of the city (as opposed to just around it) will lead you on to 93 to the north, or the south, or the Mass Pike going west. 93 is often the busiest highway (just try going north on a Friday afternoon in the summer, or winter, or fall …) but at holiday travel times, the Mass Pike can take the cake, devolving in to a traffic jam spanning half the state. What should take 50 minutes may take four times that long.

50 minutes or 3 hours? You make the call.

But there’s no reason to join everyone and travel at the worst time. If you are flexible as to when you hit the road, you can spend a lot less time in the car, and a lot more time preparing stuffing and baking pies (which reminds me, I have some stuffing to make and pie crusts to bake). My family has been making a trek to New York City for many years, and we’ve watched as the situation on the Turnpike has changed over the years. Originally, traveling on Wednesday was the worst traffic. Schools get out early anyway, so many families decided to bag the whole day and hit the road the night before, and Tuesday, with a full work day rush and traffic, became miserable (it still is). For a few years we discovered a secret: almost no one traveled on Thanksgiving morning itself. This lasted several Thanksgivings until we ran in to a wall of traffic on the Turnpike one year and spent two hours between 495 and Sturbridge. At noon, we were starving and still hours from our destination and the promise of a large spread of food so we made a desparate move, we went to the only restaurant open in Connecticut: McDonalds.

Thursday was out. But it turns out that everyone has shunned Wednesday evening. Traffic starts out heavy early and peaks in the mid afternoon. There’s a lull before a secondary peak, but by 7 o’clock, the Turnpike is clear sailing from Boston to the New York line. The data show it, as do those elusive 3:15 trips to New York City on Thanksgiving week. Yes, I’ve let you in on the family secret.

Our models will be churning fast and furious during Thanksgiving week, but we’ve been doing some analysis on the side to present here. These charts show the travel time between various points on the Turnpike for Thanksgiving 2013, and we expect the trends to follow this year (an exception would be if there is significant weather; 2013 was tame, weather-wise). The worst time to leave? Tuesday at 4:30. Tuesday’s rush hour last year lasted from 1:00 to 10:00 (the orange line) while a typical rush hour (Monday) lasts a third that long.

Most of the delays on Tuesday, however, are inside 128. Get beyond there and you’re looking at an extra 45 minutes, but not two hours. Taking in to account the Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday time frame, the worst delays between 128 and Sturbridge are actually on Thursday morning. If you don’t mind an early start, you’ll probably be okay if you hit the road by 8 (although if you then go down 84, expect traffic in Connecticut). Between 9 and 2, however, don’t plan on a fast trip. You’d do better off leaving on Tuesday or Wednesday. Despite what [Google] may tell you. Although once traffic breaks on Thursday, speeds are actually faster than normal: by Thursday afternoon everyone is driving 80 to get to Thanksgiving (or to get away from their family).

Past 128, it’s mostly holiday traffic.

Beyond 495, there’s not much commute-time traffic, but Thanksgiving is no commute. Again, the worst congestion is Thursday morning, followed by Tuesday late evening and Wednesday afternoon. While you’ll be fine driving on Monday evening, expect some congestion midday on Friday and Saturday as people trek to the mall or begin the trip home.

Usually you’re in the clear past 495. Not on Thanksgiving

Speaking of the trip away from Boston at the end of the weekend, Sunday will be no picnic on the Pike. Traffic will begin to build in the morning and peak through the afternoon, only returning to normal by mid-evening. So if the in-laws are really driving you berserk, remind them that they’ll have a much more pleasant drive if they leave on Saturday.

We’ll look at some more highway segments soon, and of course track real-time traffic through the holiday weekend. For now, safe travels!