NEW YORK — Two magic words — "on time" — started appearing on some airport departure boards Tuesday as stranded passengers' patience and cash waned after a blizzard that brought transportation to a halt in the Northeast during one of the busiest travel times of the year.

For bedraggled passengers who were finally about to board flights home after Christmas, there was a sense of exhaustion that overwhelmed any excitement they might have felt.

"I don't know if I ever want to go on vacation again, honestly," said 28-year-old Tiffany Bunton, who was heading through security at LaGuardia with her 8-year-old daughter, Trystan, on their way back to Fort Worth, Texas.

Passengers crammed into airports in other cities on Tuesday hoping for a chance to reach their destinations. More than 1,700 passengers were stranded in Chicago, where several international flights were diverted.

Michael Giesen and Merja Nevalainen-Giesen, a retired couple from Dusseldorf, Germany, were among the mostly European stranded passengers gathered in the lobby of the Hilton hotel at O'Hare International Airport.

"Europe is coming together," Michael Giesen, 67, joked as he looked at the crowd.

The exhaustion was felt by thousands, in travails big and small, serious and surreal, after the blizzard of December 2010 sucker-punched the northeastern U.S. on Sunday night and into Monday, one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Air travel in the nation's busiest airspace nearly shut down Monday, and thousands of stranded passengers turned terminals into open-air hotels while they waited for planes to take off and land on plowed runways. Experts said it would likely take several days to rebook all the displaced passengers.

Adriana Siqueira, 38, was rapidly running out of money with no end in sight to her travel nightmare at New York's LaGuardia. The housekeeper from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has been told she and her 10-year-old daughter cannot get home until New Year's Day. They have already spent one night in the terminal and can't afford a hotel.

"I have no idea what I'm going to do," Siqueira said. "I don't feel good."

This storm simply didn't play fair, cold-cocking the Northeast with more than 2 feet (0.61 meters) of snow on a holiday weekend when everyone seemed to be out of town, groggy with holiday cheer or just unprepared.

In New York, residents outside Manhattan complained of a sluggish response by snow plow crews who still hadn't finished clearing the streets. Fire officials said the unplowed streets and abandoned cars made it harder to respond to emergencies, including a five-alarm, wind-whipped blaze at a Queens apartment building Monday night.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday that hundreds of city buses and dozens of ambulances remained stuck in the snow throughout the city, and officials predicted streets would not be clear for another 24 hours, a day later than they first promised.

"The bottom line is, we're doing everything we possibly can and pulling every resource from every possible place to meet the unique challenges that this storm is posing," Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg said the city simply does not have enough tow trucks and crews to dig out the abandoned vehicles, and has been pleading with private companies to help out.

Some 1,000 vehicles have been removed from three major New York City-area expressways alone, he said. Emergency vehicles erred in trying to navigate unplowed streets during the storm, and New Yorkers also should not have ignored warnings and driven during that time, he said.

The Fire Department said it received more than 4,000 calls during the storm — its busiest day in recent memory, apart from the Sept. 11 attacks.

In New Jersey on Tuesday, a full day after the snow stopped falling, conditions were so bad that some post offices weren't delivering mail, one major road was closed, others were reduced to one or two lanes, and officials were still making sure that people weren't still stuck in the hundreds of cars stranded along roadways.

The storm wreaked havoc on almost every form of conveyance: from the buses at the nation's busiest terminal near Times Square to the region's usually punctual commuter trains.

A tractor-trailer skidded off a road and smashed into a house in Maine. A woman went into labor on a New Jersey highway, causing a traffic jam that stranded 30 vehicles. Rails on the normally reliable New York subway shorted out. Winds topping 65 mph (104.6 kph) ripped power lines, leaving tens of thousands of people in the dark across New England.

Two of the New York area's major airports — LaGuardia and Kennedy — began to receive inbound flights Monday night. Newark Liberty began receiving inbound flights Tuesday morning. More than 5,000 flights have been canceled since Sunday night at all three airports.

The storm, which dumped 20 inches (50.8 centimeters) of snow in Central Park Sunday, was New York City's sixth-worst since record-keeping began in 1869, said Adrienne Leptich, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. A February 2006 storm dropped 26.9 inches (68.3 centimeters) of snow on Central Park, breaking the previous record, set in 1947, by half an inch.

The storm was sprawling and fickle, dropping 32 inches (81.28 centimeters) on Rahway, New Jersey; 10 inches (25.4 centimeters) on Franklin, South Carolina, and 19 inches (48.26 centimeters) in South Boston but only 6.5 inches (16.51 centimeters) in West Hartford, Connecticut, according to the Weather Service.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Carla Johnson in Chicago; Beth DeFalco in Asbury Park, New Jersey; David Porter in Newark; and Sara Kugler Frazier, Samantha Henry and Deepti Hajela in New York.