Drive to Vermont in December?
September 7, 2009 4:53 AM   Subscribe

Are we crazy to think of driving from Atlanta to Vermont in late December? We have reservations at a great loft-barn-cabin and we have our favorite table at our favorite restaurant reserved for a New Year's Eve dinner, but the flights are so expensive right now. How much stress will we add to our lives if we drive? (It's not the length of the trip that worries us ... it's the potential for winter weather that Georgians don't know how to deal with.)
posted by tmharris65 to Travel & Transportation around Vermont (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You will experience stress driving in snowstorms. So to mitigate this, give yourself enough slack in your schedule that you don't have to drive if there's a blizzard. Other than that, get snowtires, and the first day you have ice or snow, go to a big empty parking lot and practice emergency braking (and if you have a stick shift, do some handbrake turns for good measure. This will let you see how your car's limits differ in snow and ice (and it's a lot of fun).

Check forecasts, take your time, and travel safe!
posted by zippy at 5:07 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

The closer top snow country you get the better prepared for snow clearance in those states.
posted by Postroad at 5:10 AM on September 7, 2009

Presumably, you're going to get off a plane and rent a car, so you'll be driving in snow anyway. You're only tacking an extra 500 miles of snow onto that, and I-95 will be the easy part right up past Boston to the NH border. It's the last three hours that can get hairy.

Other options: can you fly to NYC or Boston cheaply and take the Ethan Allen Express from NYC to Rutland? Or there is a shuttle service, too.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:12 AM on September 7, 2009

Are we crazy to think of driving from Atlanta to Vermont in late December?

Give yourself at least two days to make the trip and be prepared to stop and get a motel at any point. Before you go, take the car into the shop and see if it needs anything, especially tires.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:39 AM on September 7, 2009

It doesn't usually take long after a storm or blizzard ends for major roads to get plowed and salted so that they are in pretty good shape. So I don't think you're going to have a lot of problems unless you try to drive during bad weather.

I wouldn't get snow tires, but I would make sure you have a good set of all-season tires on your car. It also might be worth investing in a AAA membership just for this trip.

One of the things I've noticed is that southerners often step on the gas too aggressively in slippery conditions, causing the wheels to spin in the snow (or ice) and lose all their traction. You need to go easy on the gas, brake gently, keep your speed appropriate for the conditions and leave extra distance for stopping.

You also have to use good judgment and know when to park your car and wait for better conditions. You don't want to wreck your car or get hurt, especially when you're a long ways from home.
posted by 14580 at 5:40 AM on September 7, 2009

In my experience snow in the NE will temporarily slow traffic to a crawl. Typically New England soccer moms and dads in ginormous SUVs will think they are invincible and drive faster than they should; so remember to wave to them as they sit in their overturned yukons. As mentioned above major roadways will be cleared down to the pavement shortly after the storm ends. You must however familiarize yourself with black ice. A thin sheet of ice that will form in a freezing rain. Until the roads are salted this can be very dangerous. Plot your course with several distractions such as museums and shops that you can stop at if road conditions get nasty.
posted by Gungho at 5:42 AM on September 7, 2009

You won't need them on the highway, and I don't know what kind of vehicle you are driving, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to invest in a set of tire chains. You probably won't need them, but you never know.

You have little to nothing to worry about while driving on the highway, unless there is a blizzard or something (in which case you wouldn't be driving anyway). Once you are off, that's where the fun could begin. You'll be driving that anyway, regardless of flying or driving. So pack up and enjoy the drive! Make sure to see some of the sights along the way.
posted by suburbanrobot at 5:46 AM on September 7, 2009

If you stay on interstates as much as possible, I think you would likely be okay. If the weather starts looking dicey, there are enough hotels/motels that it would be pretty easy to stop and give up without too much warning. In the worst, WORST case scenario, you can pull off at an exit and wait a few hours until the road crews sort out the roads or the worst passes. The main danger zone would be above New York City to your destination (upstate New York and Vermont basically). Depending on whether you are going to northern or southern Vermont, that's only a few hundred miles.

Don't rely 100% on the weather forecast - random lake effect (even that far east) or other snow squalls can crop up quite quickly and be pretty severe. I had a pretty nightmarish drive back from Killington to Ithaca one March evening from snow that didn't even register on the weather forecasts and barely registered on radar. Even so, I was only 20, driving a Ford Focus with no special snow tires or anything, and with only some winter driving experience (I did go to school in Ithaca but I was only 20!) and made it fine. There were plenty of oppurtunities to stop and give up as well (I stupidly didn't).
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 6:10 AM on September 7, 2009

You're looking at a lot of stress. A Southerner who rarely sees snow can still drive just fine with a cool head and good sense. Even then, losing time to a blizzard can aggravate the situation quite a bit. If you fly and somebody else is driving locally, go for this. If you're going to rent a car locally in any situation, above advice is right. Interstate highways should be relatively fine driving conditions most of the time. You should be quite safe, but if you're worried about this being a stressful drive, it will be.

As for flights, if you're not too eager to lose two days each way for driving, consider looking to airports up to a few hours away. A relatively short drive before flying out could save quite a bit, considering that you're looking at holiday season flight out of the single busiest airport in the world.
posted by Saydur at 6:18 AM on September 7, 2009

What kind of car do you drive? If it's front-wheel drive or four wheel drive you'll be fine (as long as you have all-weather tires). Rear wheel drive (especially on a pickup truck) can be dicey during the bad weather.

Pro tip: buy a big bag of kitty litter and throw it in your trunk if you think you'll be seeing bad weather. Makes great traction if you're on something icy.

Flights into Manchester New Hampshire are pretty cheap right now (competes with Boston's Logan airport, has South West), and you can get to most of Vermont within 2 and a half hours of driving.
posted by jenkinsEar at 6:25 AM on September 7, 2009

Yes, the roads are often cleared quickly, but if you're caught in a snowstorm, the actual driving conditions are dangerous and terrible. Little to no visibility, etc.

It really does depend on the forecast, but millions of us do live up in this area and we get around. We just don't go out during blizzards, so if that's when you'll be on the road, prepare to be flexible.
posted by dzaz at 6:40 AM on September 7, 2009

I would add that if you're going to do winter driving it's a good idea to have some supplies in the car. Living in Michigan we always keep some non-perishable food (granola bars or the like), a blanket, a shovel, the aforementioned kitty litter, flares or emergency markers, basic tool kit and basic first aid kit in the car. Bring a water bottle. Carrying a thermos that you fill w/coffee or hot chocolate when you make stops is also a good plan. We very rarely need any of this stuff but it can make a huge difference if you get stuck somewhere.
posted by leslies at 6:48 AM on September 7, 2009

I'm a little bit north of Vermont and generally winter weather isn't that bad in December (if you were planning for February however...). If it snows heavily, get off the road and wait for it to clear. As mentioned upthread, states that get winter weather are much better at clearing the roads than the states for which it is a freak occurrence (oh the stories I could tell about snow in Atlanta...)
posted by saucysault at 6:56 AM on September 7, 2009

Don't get chains, or whatever. Simply plan enough time that you can wait it out in a motel or something if it snows, and plan an alternate vacation for it the forecast is consistently bad.

Vacation is not a good time to learn how to drive in the snow, really, nor is a long road trip.
posted by miss tea at 7:04 AM on September 7, 2009

This is a bad idea. I'm an Atlantan who spent an entire summer up north quite unexpectedly without problem. But I'm going to take a totally different approach here...

It's all about the money.

You don't say where you're going, but if your objective is to save money, you're playing in a false economy. The IRS reimbursement rate for mileage is $0.505 per mile. This is intended to be a "break-even" rate with the idea that you don't profit from it. That's a pretty good estimate of wear and tear, mileage-based depreciation, gas, etc, for most cars. From Atlanta, GA, to Burlington, VT, you're looking at 2,322 miles r-t via the most direct route, for a total cost of $1,172.61. A very quick search of Delta's site has Dec 30-Jan 2 ATL-BTV flights from $511 per person for a total of $1022.

If you fly, you'll save $150 on transport alone.

Now, how much is your time and stress worth?
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:06 AM on September 7, 2009

Driving in snow and ice

I think the link above pretty much lists the main important things about driving in snow. If you know this, you can potentially survive 5 plus winters driving in the snow unscathed like I did(only I was in Maine). There aren't any special driving secrets that only northerners know, and practice isn't necessary unless you want to correct your natural braking tendencies to prevent skidding. Generally speaking, if you drive slow, you should be ok in most bad weather. Slow driving will give you enough time to stop and/or react to most situations. By knowing the information in the link, you'll probably be more knowledgeable than many northerners already to avoid a crash--a somewhat sad truth.

Furthermore, since you will be coming in December, you might be excited to know that big snow usually doesn't hit the Northeast until January-ish, so you may only have to deal with just a dusting of snow at most, but still, it's a good idea to employ good driving habits.
posted by nikkorizz at 8:32 AM on September 7, 2009

There is in all honesty, a significant chance that the Vermont weather in December will mean that driving is actually 100% impossible. Take this into account. You may simply not be able to drive. Being stuck in Vermont is really only recommended if you have somewhere nearby to stay - look up local hotels and such on your route, but of course, once you add an extra night in any hotel in Vermont in December, you may as well have flown.

I'm not talking about this from the perspective of someone unaccustomed to winter. I'm talking about this from a rational, safe point of view. There are days, many of them in December/January, where I as a native Vermonster simply DO NOT drive because to do so would be insane and a flat-out invitation to an accident.

(No one has tire chains, but winter tires are recommended, though this adds a lot of weight to your car and thus ups its gas consumption.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:39 AM on September 7, 2009

Response by poster: Wow -- thanks for all the great responses!

We'll be traveling in an all-wheel drive Subaru Impreza Outback Sport, so we feel confident about the car we're in.

And, for the most part, our route will keep us on interstates. We are staying in Huntington, just south of I-89, and dining mostly in Waterbury (both restaurants that we love are only a mile or so from the highway).

Because we have time off from work, we can plan on making our drive up 2-3 days and our drive home 2-3 days -- and we like to drive and see things.

You've mostly reassured us that we are not crazy for considering making this a road trip.
posted by tmharris65 at 9:52 AM on September 7, 2009

we can plan on making our drive up 2-3 days and our drive home 2-3 days -- and we like to drive and see things.

You can do it in two with long driving days, but allowing a third day is a whole lot smarter, especially to ensure that you're not driving in the dark for long periods and aren't having to beat the clock. You should also have at least a couple of routes sketched out -- the obvious ones being 85/77/81 then up through Albany, the other being 85/95/91 through CT -- and be willing to make detours if the weather dictates. Be prepared.
posted by holgate at 10:20 AM on September 7, 2009

We'll be traveling in an all-wheel drive Subaru Impreza Outback Sport

That's essentially the state car of Vermont. There will be maybe a one in six chance you'll encounter some shitty weather on your drive. Make sure you have safety gear in your car [charger cell phone, blanket, some extra water, AAA card]. If the roads are so bad that you need chains on I-89, you should not be driving period, so I wouldn't include this as part of your emergency kit. Have decent shoes in the car [i.e. don't get all dolled up in "night out" clothes and then wind up having to wait for a tow truck in them]. Basically if you drive slowly and careflly in an appropriate car with decent tires, you should be able to manage most winter driving. Leave yourself enough time so that you're not racing the clock to get anywhere, and take a sanity check and be prepared to call it off if they're basically saying "everyone who doesn't need to drive, stay home" on the radio.

Bookmark this URL and keep an eye on it when you're up here. It will give you an idea about up to the minute road conditions. Keep my email address handy if you want someone nearby [I live a mile or so off of Route 89 a few towns south of Barre] to give you an eyewitness report. Have fun!
posted by jessamyn at 10:22 AM on September 7, 2009

I've done separate Virginia to Atlanta and Virginia to Western Mass/Vermont trips in December, always in one day, each. It's been a while since I've done the northerly legs. I am always thrilled to get out of my car at the end of both trips, because they are a long haul, especially if you aren't with someone who likes to make stops and see stuff along the way. A third day will cut back on the stress significantly, and give you more room for sightseeing and adjusting to the weather along the way. Roads do warm up in the sun/with traffic, so leaving at 10 instead of 7 can make a good difference.

Atlanta to Virginia is cake, so I'd suggest heading as far north as possible in the first day to give yourself wiggle room for snowier climes. Snow in Virginia is rare in late December, particularly on the eastern routes. If history is any indication, it is unlikely that we'll have Christmas snow this year (however, I'm not a climatologist, and I'm not looking at any models to predict this; just a faint knowledge of recent weather patterns! If it actually snows, you can lob a snowball at me as you drive by.), and if we do, it'll be minor. I-81 is slightly more likely to get flurrries or a light dusting than I-95, but those roads are the first thing cleared and kept clear. Heading north on 81, the possibility of snow and iciness increases.

Once you hit New York & Massachusetts, you are likely to start seeing snow piled on the side of the road, and will be driving through the evidence of a recent or happening storm. If you find yourself in icy/light snow conditions that are worrying you and you are getting nervous, I'd suggest finding an empty parking lot (my father taught us in school parking lot), and practice driving on it in those conditions - slowing down, backing up, turning corners, braking, etc, to get a sense of what it feels like, and to decide if you want to stop and wait it out, or if you feel comfortable driving in those conditions.
posted by julen at 2:13 PM on September 7, 2009

We'll be traveling in an all-wheel drive Subaru Impreza Outback Sport

That is a great car. It'll start off in snow and ice like you're on dry blacktop. Don't let this fool you. It will not stop or turn anywhere near as well on snow or ice as it will in the dry.

This is why the aforementioned soccer moms in Yukons end up overturned in the median so much. The car behaves normally when they floor it so they don't realize that they can't corner or stop normally in the snow until it's too late.

So -- it's a great car for not getting stuck (I've had two Subies and they never let me down through 15 winters driving back and forth to VT.) But be sure to take it slow anyway. I'd say, even though it'll be tempting to try, as a first-timer if you're passing anybody on the Interstate you're going too fast. And leave at least double the room you'd normally leave between you and the car in front of you. More if you can.
posted by Opposite George at 4:28 PM on September 7, 2009

I think you should be ok. Plus if the weather in VT is bad enough that you shouldn't drive, you're not going to be able to fly in anyway. You'll be waiting it out in the airport in New York or somewhere.

I would say plan to drive, get the car and tires checked before, and have a "plan B" of somewhere nice to stay if you can't make it north of point x (Boston, New York, whatever).

There are a few other AskMes about winter driving tips, which you can check out. (this thread has a few)

A few sort of common sense things that haven't been mentioned here: once you get off the highway, gas stations are fewer and farther between in VT, and if you're driving at night especially; get gas before you absolutely have to. Three winter readiness tips: Top up your windshield wiper fluid, keep the extra in the jug in the trunk. Get an ice scraper/snow brusher thing (available at gas station) and keep it in the cabin of the car rather than the trunk (if it's really cold, the locks can freeze and if it's in the cabin, you have more doors, so more options for how to get in). When it's slushy on the roads, trucks kick up a lot of gunk and you will have to squirt the windshield a lot. Also put antifreeze in your car that is rated for colder climates.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:51 PM on September 7, 2009

gas stations are fewer and farther between in VT

Roger that. And outside the big towns 24-hour operation should not be assumed. If you're coming up 91, "Big Town" means Brattleboro, Springfield and White River Junction. I'm not positive about Bellows Falls. Someone else can chime in on the situation farther north.

Same goes for the kind of traveler services most folks take for granted in the rest of the Eastern U.S.; franchise-type fast food, for example, is essentially nonexistent outside of those big towns (there are about 15 McDonalds in the whole state.) It's a cool thing, really, that a whole state is basically free of this stuff. But if that kind of thing is important to you, again, plan ahead.
posted by Opposite George at 5:31 PM on September 7, 2009

Also, closer to the day-of, you'll be thinking about driving routes. Consider topography! One of your routes has you coming up 81, which will go through the Appalachians etc further north, or you could go east to the coast and then come up 95. The Appalachians in WVa and PA, etc are going to be snowier than the coast by a margin worth considering.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:46 PM on September 7, 2009

I just drove from Asheville to Baltimore to come back home to Vermont. Cost for Airtrans was $109, two ways, or 55 bux.

Think about driving to a place that you can fly direct from... Charlotte or Baltimore. Rent a car in Burlington. The net should be less. That way, you are driving in what promises to be the best conditions and flying over what might be the worst.

Other local airports include Manchester, NH... Boston, MA, Albany, NY.... all are about 2 hours away from Central Vermont.

Your solution space for this problem is not either/or. Open up your mind to more flexible alternatives.

(I am a native of the South and a 7th year resident of Vt. I've made the winter trip a bunch. It's 50/50 on weather on all trips. If you are not competent in driving in snow, if you are in a hurry, if you can't think outside the box or plan for roadway disasters, you are risking a bit driving up here. It's bad for us to have dead southerners clogging the roads with emergency vehicles, too! )

BTW.... locals predict a snowy winter based on our wet summer. I'll believe it next year, but that's what the old timers are saying.
posted by FauxScot at 8:18 PM on September 7, 2009

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