Holiday Travel? No Need to Unravel… How to Beat Air Travel Stress this Coming Season

Many of us don’t like to think about the holidays the week after Halloween — there are still some leaves on the trees, after all, and summer is still vivid in our minds, and we have so much to do… and in a few weeks everything will be happening so fast.  There are plenty of sources of anxiety as the year slowly winds down: concerns about violent weather and flu season wreaking havoc on your plans; worries about not being able to afford the gifts this year that loved ones are hoping for; having to visit a relative you don’t necessarily like; seasonal depression (either your own or affecting someone you love); or bad memories of past holidays.  Don’t let worries about 16-hour flight delays, lost luggage, exorbitant hotel costs, and other holiday travel headaches get you down faster than your clock falls backward.  This is a great time to think about making the most of your holiday air travel — especially if you’re still finalizing your plans.  Here are some recommendations.

Expect a delay at (or before) the security checkpoint.  Thanks to the tragic shooting of a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official yesterday at LAX, we can expect screening delays at American airports of anywhere between 10-30 minutes for the foreseeable future.  It’s too early to tell if U.S. airports will start to implement screening stations just to get into the airport (think Ataturk Int’l in Istanbul or Sheremetyevo in Moscow), which would be a huge expense and probably be met with a lot of public resistance.  At any rate, if you’re traveling within or from the U.S. this season, don’t expect TSA agents to be full of yuletide cheer… and don’t be surprised if there are more random personal checks before you even line up near the conveyor belts.

Lay over in fair-weathered cities, even if it takes you out of your way.  Does it sound ridiculous to lay over in Houston or Atlanta when you’re traveling from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine?  It won’t if you avoid a storm that shuts down Chicago, Denver, or Detroit for 12+ hours.   If you’re going somewhere that doesn’t have much direct flight service, choose a layover city that’s unlikely to be affected by weather delays (and remember, going a bit out of your way will add nicely to your frequent flyer miles).

Shop for gifts at your destination.  These days, it’s become popular to mail holiday gifts to your destination ahead of you rather than pack them in checked luggage (with airlines charging upwards of $75 per extra checked bag)  with risk of items being damaged or stolen (mainly by airline baggage handlers).  But mailing big boxes to your destination can be time-consuming before you leave, and can cause some confusion if you’re sending to a hotel rather than the home of a family member or friend.  A great alternative?  Do your holiday shopping once you arrive at your destination.  It gives you something very practical to do to escape 1) the claustrophobic environment at an in-law’s or sibling’s home, or 2) the temptation to sit around the house for six hours straight (with people you actually do like) and eat or drink way too much.

You might be worried that “all the good stuff will be gone” from the stores if you wait to shop until a couple days before a major holiday.  Keep in mind that with so many people buying online these days, stores run out of stock less frequently than they used to. Also, the holiday season is very short this year, since Thanksgiving is so late in November, so you’ll be in good company milling around malls at the time that Santa is starting to go hoarse.

Stay at a business hotel. Hotels in major cities often cut their rates around the holidays just because there aren’t as many people traveling for work (does your company send you to Minneapolis or Toronto to meet with new clients on 12/23 or 12/31?).  Yes, business hotels aren’t as festive or homey as the places down the street with wisps of mistletoe between the chandeliers, but if you’re on a budget, you’ll certainly appreciate not paying $200 per night — and there’s probably some decent eggnog down in the bar next to the conference center.

Deal with a cancellation or delay using every means possible. In instances where your flight is canceled and you’re told by the airline to “wait” for instructions or further information, I strongly advise taking a triple-tiered approach if you’re desperate to get where you need to go.  Get in the nearest ticketing line to find out more about your predicament and options — and at the same time, phone up the airline’s customer service and use your handheld device to go on their website as well.  Sound aggressive or redundant?   I’ve done it several times throughout my travels and avoided getting stranded in Dublin, Zurich, and Buenos Aires.  (And if you’re curious — in Dublin the airline website approach worked, in Zurich the airline phone hotline attendant solved my travel woes, and in Buenos Aires the handsome porteño at kiosk 5 had me successfully on my way.)

Be prepared for the unexpected: standing out on the tarmac in the rain or snow.  Why is it that, more and more often, we’re checking in at gates where we’re bussed off to our plane sitting 75 feet from the runway?  This seems to be a particular problem in Southern Europe and North Africa, and means you can get stuck in the rain or snow outside the terminal if there’s a delay.  In Rome early last month I stood out on the tarmac next to the plane for almost a half hour — at the tail-end of a thunderstorm — because the guy driving the bus from the gate didn’t get good instructions on when the plane was ready to board.  Some of us (including me) were sorry that we’d shoved our jackets and hats into our checked luggage so we could have more space for our duty-free purchases in the cozy airport.  Learn from us, and be prepared for a “runway rendezvous” in the cold, just in case.

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Keep your warm clothes on hand in case of unplanned delays in unexpected places, and you won’t be as bitter as last year’s fruitcake by the time you land

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