Outer Banks Traffic
by Jessie S.
If you’ve been visiting the Outer Banks for a few years or so, you already know that the Outer Banks has a considerably large amount of traffic – specifically on check-in days during the peak travel season. Experienced travelers usually have their own tricks, alternate routes, and timing down to a science and there’s good reason for it. If you’re planning your first trip here, not taking the proper precautions can leave you sitting in a stand-still traffic back-up when you should be enjoying your vacation... and nothing sours your trip like a bad commute. Luckily, there are several steps you can take to avoid the heavy Outer Banks Traffic when you are heading into town!
Why Is There So Much Outer Banks Traffic?
The Outer Banks is becoming a more popular vacation destination year after year which means an increase of traffic during check-in days. While we love to see tourism grow, we hate to see our guests stuck sitting in a hot car, especially if you’ve been driving all day, have impatient children, or have family members in the car who are uncomfortable sitting for long periods of time. What's even more frustrating is that often, new visitors don't understand why the traffic doesn't flow as it should. There are a couple main reasons that traffic may back-up during the summer:
Saturdays Are Popular Check-In Days
Although this is obviously more noticeable in the summer, it remains true throughout the entire year that Saturday is the most common check-in and check-out day for short term vacation rentals. Most rental companies operate on a weekly rental basis with Saturday as the main turnover day. Although you can find partial rentals, Friday turnovers, and Sunday turnovers, Saturday is the always going to be the big day so there are simply more people than ever coming in and leaving the area.
Late Afternoon/Early Evening is a Popular Check-In Time
Much like Saturday being the most popular check-in day, vacation rentals are almost exclusively ready around late afternoon or early evening. Even hotels have similar check-in times as vacation rental homes. The reason check-in times are later in the day is because the prior guest likely checked out earlier that morning and the hotel or rental company needs time to properly prepare and clean the rental for your arrival. The industry standard for a check-in is sometime between 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM so this is nothing new to most travelers. However, it does cause an increase of traffic flow as people are trying to time their trip just right to reach their destination before or right at check-in time. To put it simply, more cars are heading into the area in the same time frame creating increased traffic.
Unfortunately, accidents happen, especially when there are more cars on the road. Traveling in from the north, you always end up on US Hwy 158 but there are a couple of alternate routes to get there, including the main route through the Chesapeake Expressway in Virginia. This puts many travelers in the Norfolk and Chesapeake areas which have a lot of traffic in general, so it isn’t uncommon to get stuck behind an accident or even road construction before you even get into North Carolina. Many people think that once they get through city traffic and finally make it into Currituck County, they’re in the clear, but that is unfortunately not the case. Accidents can happen along US Hwy 158, on the bypass or on Highway 12, especially during peak travel months, effectively blocking all the cars behind the accident trying to get onto the beach.
There’s Only One Way in From the North
With the increase of vehicles on the road, the fact that there is only one route in from the North means it is no surprise that traffic could become a nightmare. If you’re coming into the Outer Banks from any area to the North, you will end up on US Hwy 158. No matter what route you take to get to Currituck County, you end up on the one and only road which will take you the towns of Coinjock, Jarvisburg, Powells Point and Harbinger, just to name a few, and will eventually take you across the Wright Memorial Bridge. Normally, this is a fairly pleasant drive with two lanes of flowing traffic going in each direction. Unfortunately, that goes out the window during a heavy traffic day.
With the extra vehicles on the road, these two lanes fill up fast and in the case of any type of back-up, you may even find yourself sitting still. We’ve heard horror stories of guests being stuck as far back as the Grave Digger in Poplar Branch at stand still traffic where it took them over 2 hours just to get to Kitty Hawk. (This may look deceivingly long on a map but the distance is only about 20 miles so you can imagine how slowly the traffic was moving). If you’ve already had to deal with traffic in the Norfolk area and you’re now sitting for even 15 minutes, your good mood may drain rapidly. If you vacation in the Northern Outer Banks or on Hatteras Island, you still have quite a way to go once you cross the bridge so this only adds to your frustration.
The biggest point of bottleneck is right after the bridge at the stoplight in Kitty Hawk directly across from the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. Infamously, getting through this stoplight can be a struggle but that is because it’s the separating point for vehicular traffic. Those who are vacationing in Southern Shores, Duck, and Corolla will all get in the two left hand turning lanes to head north while everyone else will stay straight to go south. This split greatly relieves some of the backup but that doesn’t change the fact there are still plenty of vehicles on the road so it’s important to stay alert, follow speed limit signs, use turn signals and watch for pedestrians and bicyclists. Those going north will be dealing with a winding, two-lane road (one lane in each direction) with heavy traffic flow and a lot of people making sudden turns and stops. Those going south on the Beach Road have similar conditions (except that the route is fairly straight) and those on the bypass have double lanes but twice as many vehicles and several stop lights.
If you live in Western North Carolina or a southern states, you will be coming into the Outer Banks on 64 East through Roanoke Island and end up in South Nags Head. This is typically smooth sailing (unless you hit construction or an accident backup) until the point in which you reach Nags Head. If you vacation anywhere north of Nags Head, you will be getting onto the same crowded streets everyone else is traveling on so it’s important to stay alert.
*The Mid-Currituck Bridge Construction Project is designed to alleviate much of this traffic and may drastically impact travel time, especially for those vacationing in the Northern Outer Banks. Click here to learn more about this project and get a current status on construction.
How Can I Avoid Outer Banks Traffic?
Now that we’ve properly put you on high alert about a potential traffic nightmare, we want to relieve some of your concerns. Just because there are thousands of cars on the road every weekend doesn’t mean you’re doomed to get stuck in Outer Banks traffic. Planning out your route, being prepared, and making sure everyone in your party knows the travel plan is essential to a smooth commute. There are several different steps you can take to avoid the traffic all together:
Plan to Arrive Early
The absolute best way to avoid potential traffic is to arrive early. In general, we recommend crossing the Wright Memorial Bridge before 10:00 AM – the earlier the better, especially in June, July or August on Saturdays. Sitting in heavy traffic is a mistake most people only make once so if you ask any long-term visitor to the area, they will tell you their check-in day itinerary includes getting over the bridge as early as possible. When the check-in time for your home doesn’t start until 4:00 PM, we understand this might seem crazy but there are so many things to do on the Outer Banks and any one of them is a better option than sitting in wall-to-wall traffic, we promise.
While it never hurts to ask your rental company if your home is ready before the standard check-in time, it’s important to remember to be patient. They are doing their best to thoroughly prepare and clean the home so it will be in top-notch condition for you when you arrive. This takes time, especially considering a prior guest was in the home earlier that day. You should never pull into the home's driveway to wait, use the outdoor facilities of the home, or otherwise go to the home until the home is ready. While you’re waiting, you should instead use your travel day as part of your vacation and explore everything the Outer Banks has to offer.
Purchase Early Check-In
We understand that many people prefer to check-in and unpack as soon as possible. Luckily, Seaside Vacations offers the option of purchasing Early Check-In on many of our homes. This guarantees your check-in time is much earlier – 1:00 PM to be exact. This can be beneficial if you have a loaded car or If you have young kids, pets, or elderly family members who really need to get into a home as soon as possible and out of the hot summer sun. Keep in mind that Early Check-In is subject to availability so it is best to request and purchase this option when booking the home.
Use GPS to Track Traffic Flow
You may have your route all planned out or you may even know the route by heart. However, even if you leave early, road construction or an traffic accident can occur at any time and drastically change the travel conditions along your route. Use your phone or a car GPS and leave it on during your trip. It will warn you about any potential upcoming traffic congestion and suggest an alternate route before it’s too late and you end up sitting in a back-up.
Another option is to check-in late. Most of our homes are keyless entry meaning you don’t even have to stop by the rental office when you arrive – you can go straight to the home. While regular check-in begins at 4:00 PM, there is nothing stopping you from checking in later in the evening. If you plan to go with this option, just keep in mind that potential back-ups and traffic from accidents or construction can take a while to clear out so traffic coming into the area may still be heavy long after 4:00 PM. Some travelers even report heavy traffic on summer Saturdays as late as 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM.
This fact is a given but it’s always important to remind yourself of this before a road trip. Not only is your safety important, causing or being involved in an accident will impact your travel time as well as every other driver on the road. Driving in a tourist location presents challenges and hazards that may not be common in your everyday commute. First of all, we are at a beach and people often walk or ride their bikes, especially on the Beach Road so please, please, please be on alert for pedestrians. Sadly, accidents involving pedestrians are fairly common and many have been fatal. The best way to avoid a dangerous situation is to be prepared for it coming in and to keep your eyes on the road at all times.
We understand you probably don’t know where you’re going if this is your first visit to the Outer Banks but looking down at directions, observing your surroundings, looking for road names/signs/restaurants, etc. all pose potential traffic hazards. The best way to keep your family and everyone else on the road safe is to have a front seat passenger who acts as a navigator. This person can operate the GPS or follow written instructions as well as keep an eye out for your turn. If you want to drive around to check out the town, trust us, turnover day is not the day to do that. Instead, go out early in the morning on a week day when there is less traffic to explore.
Given the fact that many people don’t know where they are going, traffic hazards like sudden breaking, quick lane changes and last-minute turns happen often so if ever there was a time to keep your eyes on the road, it’s when you’re driving around in a tourist town.
What Should I Do While Waiting to Check-In?
Check-In day is still part of your vacation so we encourage you to start experiencing the Outer Banks the moment you arrive by finding something fun to do while waiting on your vacation rental. Our favorite suggestion is to grab lunch at a local restaurant – the Outer Banks is a foodies paradise after all! There are many great places serving up fresh seafood and tasty dishes even at lunch time and a warm meal after traveling all day can be very satisfying. Plus, this is a great option to get you in the cool AC indoors if it’s too hot outside. If you have time to spare, try visiting one of our local historic landmarks like the Wright Brothers National Memorial or one of the 5 Lighthouses of the Outer Banks. Of course, the most obvious way to pass the time is go ahead and hit the beach! Come prepared by having your beach gear within easy reach and stop by one of the public beach accesses with a bathhouse so that you can change into your gear and start relaxing by the water.
How Should I Prepare for The Trip?
Whether you leave early or not, you still are engaging in a long road trip and could always hit traffic so it’s best to be prepared for your ride! Here are some tips for a stress-free road trip: we suggest making sure your car is road ready (basic car maintenance), packing efficiently, planning out your route, and having a fully-stocked MP3 player! Also, it’s a good idea to bring snacks such as protein bars, crackers, chips, cookies, pre-made sandwiches, water and caffeine. This can save you time and money spent at a fast food drive-thru or convenience store. If you have kids in the car, try avoiding the notorious “Are We There Yet?” question with these awesome kid-friendly road trip games.
Plan Ahead for Next Year
We understand you may already have your vacation rental booked for the year. Or maybe Saturday to Saturday summer rentals are the only ones that work with your family’s schedule. In that case, you may not be able to change much up for next year. However, if you have a more flexible travel schedule, plan ahead for next year to avoid the Outer Banks traffic by taking these simple steps.
Choose a Different Check-In Day
Saturday is a great day to check-in but it may not be feasible depending on your travel plans. Seaside Vacations offers several homes with Friday and Sunday check-in days and if you know you won't be able to cross the bridge early enough to avoid traffic, consider one of these homes to help avoid that Saturday traffic back-up all together.
Visit During the Spring or Fall
We understand that the beach is a classic summer vacation destination so many people don’t realize that Spring and Fall are both awesome times to visit the Outer Banks. Not only is it less crowded – meaning less traffic – but rentals are more affordable, the weather is still warm, and there is still plenty to do. Click here to learn more about the benefits to Springtime on the Outer Banks.
Purchase Early Check-InAs we mentioned earlier, arriving early is the best way to avoid traffic but if you don’t want to wait around too long to get into your rental home once you’re in the area, purchasing early check-in is a great way to avoid the wait! Learn more about early check-in and our check-in procedures.
Jessie has been coming to the Outer Banks since she was just 5 years old. She loved it here so much that she finally relocated in 2018. Now her mission is to show the world that the Outer Banks is an incredible place that everyone should experience. When she isn't working, you can find Jessie hanging out with her friends, chilling at home with her awesome cat, Yoji, or discovering a new Outer Banks adventure.