They say the day before Thanksgiving is the heaviest travel day of the year, but that wasn't evident from the look of things at John Wayne Airport on Wednesday afternoon.
"There's nobody here!" exclaimed Wesley Stevenson, 18, of Lake Forest, heading to his father's house in Sacramento. "I'm really surprised."
Said Teresa O'Connell, 28, hanging out with her fiance at the terminal two hours early for a flight to Missoula, Mont.: "I thought it would be packed. I don't know what's going on -- I guess we'll go to McDonald's."
Airport spokesman Justin McCusker didn't know what was going on either, explaining the terminal's wide-open spaces and ticket counters sans lines as simply a lull.
"This is the busiest weekend of the year for us," he insisted, adding that the airport expected more than 112,000 passengers to pass through its gates from Wednesday to Sunday.
On the day before Thanksgiving last year, he said, more than 28,000 people came and went, compared with the usual 23,500 a day. And on the Sunday of that weekend, McCusker said, the number rose to well over 29,000. "Based on what the carriers have told us," he said, "we expect the numbers this year to be at that level or above."
His advice: Arrive at the airport 2 1/2 hours early, even if it means consuming a few extra Big Macs.
Regardless of what's happening at the airport, you might need the extra time to negotiate the freeways. About 2.3 million Southern Californians were expected to hit the road Wednesday and today, said spokesman Jeff Spring of the Automobile Club of Southern California. That's 2.4% more than last year, with the No. 1 destination being Las Vegas. "They're going to Vegas and hoping to have turkey at the buffet," he said.
Other top destinations, in descending order, he said, were the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Yosemite and San Diego. "People need to be patient," Spring said. "Just plan enough time to be in heavy traffic and know some alternate route."
Not many alternate routes were available Wednesday in Orange County, as freeway traffic crawled at nearly double the usual volume. "Almost every freeway is gridlocked," said Officer Stacy Willits, a spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol. "It's a little busier than expected, and it started early, about 5 a.m."
Traffic was expected to taper off today before hitting another maximum on Sunday. "It's like a normal Friday commute times two," Willits said.
Except for one fatality in Fountain Valley, she said, most accidents were fender-benders. "I don't think they have the room for serious crashes," Willits said.
Her advice to drivers: "Leave a good space cushion on all four sides, with at least 2 1/2 car lengths in front. Use your mirror to check all around. Absolutely use your signals. Oh, and use your seat belts -- that's a biggie right now. You're going to see people tailgating like anything."
Patience, in fact, was a major virtue at the airport as well.
"I could be doing something else right now," declared Marina Harrison, 18, a UC Irvine student headed to San Francisco who had skipped a class to get there early. Now, 2 1/2 hours before her flight, she had her luggage checked in, boarding pass in hand and only minor barriers between her and the x-ray machine.
Cameron McMackin, the other half of the engaged Missoula-bound couple, had come well-prepared: "I brought my laptop so we can watch DVDs. It's a Catch-22, of course: If we'd been late, the lines would be running out the door."
Times staff writer Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.