It’s holiday time in the western world, a time to enjoy the comforts of home, hearth and family. But that’s not quite the way it works these days. With families scattered across the country and the globe, the holidays have become a time of travel. Every year there’s a mass migration of people returning home for the annual get-together — not to mention those using the Christmas break as a good opportunity for an escape to the sun.
All that adds up to controlled chaos at the airports of the world, and if you’re one of those travelling this month, you’re going to be part of it. However, there are a few ways to avoid some of the obstacles and get where you’re going with as little turbulence as possible. So drawing on personal experience and the wisdom of travel experts near and far, here’s a list of timely tips for holiday travel.
Avoid the biggest days
The days just before holidays like Christmas and New Year’s are the busiest times for major airports, so if you can avoid those days, your chances of an uneventful trip are higher. That’s good for those of us who are retired or have flexible schedules. If that’s not you, the tips below may help give you an easier day. Alternatively, if you don’t do Christmas and New Year’s — or do them on a different date — try flying on the holidays themselves, when most people are home celebrating with their families.
Fly early in the day
Especially if a winter storm hits, you can run into flight delays at this time of year. One of the best ways to avoid them is to book an early flight. Delays are like dominoes: one late flight makes the others behind it late too. So if your flight is one of the first of the day, the chances of a delay are a lot less.
Print your pass
The lineups to check in at the airport can be endless this time of year. But happily, airlines and airports have gone do-it-yourself: you can print your own boarding pass at home, then scan your passport at the airport and even print your own baggage tags. If you do it right, you can bypass those mile-long lines and go straight to the gate.
Don’t get bumped
Especially in the U.S., airlines overbook a lot of flights, so you can get “bumped” to a later flight if everyone shows up. This happened to me last year and it turned out well, but it’s not what you want during the holidays — and with the increased traffic, the odds of it happening could be greater. You can avoid the bump by arriving and checking in early, or by checking in online before going to the airport.
Know the flight rules
The new security restrictions and baggage fees have made flying a lot more complicated than it used to be. If you’re bringing presents along, check the airline’s restrictions, weight limits and penalties. Bottles of booze have to be in checked luggage; so do gifts too big to fit in the overhead compartment. And if any of the gifts are heavy, weigh your bag beforehand: you could end up paying for them twice if they exceed the airline weight restrictions.
Heavy traffic at the airport can slow you down on the way to your flight, and it can do the same when you arrive, especially if you have a long wait for your bags to show up. If you can manage to travel light, bring a carry-on suitcase and sashay out of the airport while the other passengers are cursing at the carousel.
Send it ahead
Experts recommend wrapping your presents after you arrive, not before, to avoid spoiling your wrapping job en route. An even better way to keep things intact and avoid the airline weight limits is to send them ahead. Online retailers are happy to deliver things direct to the recipients – just tell them not to open before Christmas.
Still missing a last-minute gift or two? Don’t forget you can find a treasure trove of wine, liquor, perfume, edibles and other gifts at the airport duty-free store — or even on the plane. Since they’re inside the waiting area, you don’t have to get them through security. And the prices are (sometimes) pretty good.
If you’re driving
If you’re heading out for the holidays by car, you’ve got a little more control over how and when you get there. But there are still some hazards to avoid: combine iffy weather with thousands of holidayers out on the highway, and there’s the potential for problems.
Here are three reminders to help you get there safe and sound.
Check the car
You’d never leave on a road trip without making sure the car is roadworthy, but it’s especially critical in winter — even a worn tire can cause an accident on icy roads. Make sure you’ve got winter tires installed, and check the fluids, battery and windshield wipers. Don’t forget to top up the wiper fluid (bring some extra too). Then, before you set out, clear all the snow off the car, including the roof and hood – it can slide off and obscure your vision.
Bad weather, breakdowns and traffic tie-ups can leave you stranded on the highway in winter. Make sure you have all the necessary emergency supplies: that includes a shovel and some sand or kitty litter, jumper cables, extra clothing and footwear, a first-aid kit, blankets and some food and water to tide you over if you get stuck. And make sure your cellphone is fully charged before you leave, so you can call for help.
Watch the weather
Keep an eye on the weather reports when you’re planning your trip: the Weather Network provides hour-by-hour forecasts, so you can see bad weather approaching. It can make sense to set out early to arrive before it hits. And if things are really looking bad, stay home: better to have your celebration a day late than end up in a fender bender.
And finally …
Take a chill pill
I hope these tips for holiday travel help you get where you’re going on time and without a lot of grief. Despite the best intentions, this can be one of the most stressful times of the year, and travelling can make it even more fraught. But remember, it’s a holiday: if something’s forgotten or everything doesn’t happen right on time, it’s not the end of the world. Just think of that turkey dinner (or that sunset drink) when you get where you’re going.