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The One Picture That All Thanksgiving Travelers Should See (Plus, Flight Status and Tips)

"Do I want a head start so I can beat it, or wait until it passes?"

Travelers wait in the security line at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. Travelers are facing delays due to winter storms in other parts of the country. (AP/The Tampa Bay Times, Eve Edelheit)

On this day before Thanksgiving, there's likely one thing on the mind of travelers heading out on their journey -- weather.

An image taken on Monday by NASA's Suomi NPP satellite shows the winter system as it began to move across the United States, moving through the South and Midwest as the week progressed.

thanksgiving weather Image source: NASA/Flicker

Weather patterns typically cross the country in three to four days. So if there's stormy weather on the West Coast on Monday and in the Rockies on Tuesday, you can figure out what Wednesday and Thursday will bring.

It takes anywhere from 12 to 24 hours for a weather system to pass over a specific location in the United States. So people can avoid driving in bad weather if they are willing to shift their start times. "Do I want a head start so I can beat it, or wait until it passes?" meteorologist Greg Carbin asked.

He offered this example. Jon Carbin, the meteorologist's son, played with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in Kansas City two nights before Christmas in 2009 — just as a winter storm bore down on the family home in Oklahoma.

"I told him, 'You have to get going as soon as the concert is over or else you are not going to make it,'" Greg Carbin said. "He wanted to sleep."

That year, Jon Carbin joined the family Christmas dinner via Skype and ate pizza in a hotel.

For those traveling by air, FlightAware has created a "Misery Map" to give you a helpful visual of the general status for flights around the country. As of 8:30 a.m. ET Wednesday, 226 flights had been delayed and 17 were canceled.

misery map FlightAware's Misery Map gives a visual of the status of flights from the country's major airports. (Image source: FlightAware)

If you head over to the interactive map and hover over an airport, it will illuminate flight patterns that are either on time or likely to cause you misery.

Now, how about a few common-sense -- but necessary -- Thanksgiving travel tips?

Traveling by air

It might seem obvious, but the best thing a Thanksgiving traveler can do is arrive at the airport early.

There aren't necessarily more people flying; it's just that more of them are less experienced. Business travelers typically don't check bags, wear slip-on shoes for security and aren't trying to buckle fidgety toddlers into seats. So the influx of once-a-year fliers creates long lines.

Thanksgiving Travel Travelers wait in the security line at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. Travelers are facing delays due to winter storms in other parts of the country. (AP/The Tampa Bay Times, Eve Edelheit)

"Air travelers set themselves up for failure by playing fast and loose with the clock," George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, said. "It's hard for type-A personalities to wait around at airports."

There can be traffic, parking lots tend to fill up on holidays and you never know how long check-in and security lines will be.

Most airlines require your bags to be checked up to an hour early. That means you need to be at the front of the line with luggage tagged. And be at the gate at least 15 minutes before departure or you risk the plane leaving without you.

"If you find yourself with time on your hands, grab a meal before flight. More airports have very good restaurants these days," Hobica says. And if you arrive early, you might even get an earlier flight.

Traveling by ground

In snow, ice or rain, speed is the enemy.

Driving too fast for conditions is among the biggest mistakes people make when navigating wintry weather, says Bill Van Tassel, manager of driver education for the American Automobile Association.

"It's much harder to get into trouble if you're going at a speed where your tires can maintain traction on the surface," says Van Tassel, who holds a doctorate degree in safety education.

His advice:

  • Make sure you have decent tire treads and wiper blades.
  • Keep eight or more seconds of driving distance behind the car in front of you.
  • Expect ice on every bridge.
  • Don't steer and brake at the same time.
  • If there's a crash in heavy freeway traffic, generally stay belted until vehicles behind you have stopped. Only then should you move away or get out to help.

Traveling by rail

For a smoother train trip, get to the station early. And don't forget your smartphone. It can help you keep track of any possible delays.

You should arrive at the station at least 45 minutes before departure time, says Ross Capon, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which advocates for better rail service in the United States. Arriving early gives you a better shot of picking where you want to sit. Most trains don't have assigned seating, so  if you're traveling with friends or family you have better chance of sitting together by getting to the station early.

Amtrak riders should download its app, which will alert you to the status of any train if you input its number.

Amtrak also posts any delays or disruptions on its Twitter accounts. Different regions have different accounts. Delays on the Northeast corridor are posted at Twitter.com/AmtrakNEC, for example. Do an online search before to see which account to follow.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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