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25 Tips for Smarter Holiday Travel

Santa with Plane Ticket

 (iStock)

Holiday travel is a bit like dental surgery. You likely don’t do it unless you have to, you have to sit for a long time, and eventually you may be subject to some invasive probing. And when it’s all over you get presents, be it a toothbrush from your dentist or, assuming you’ve been good this year, something better than a toothbrush from your loved ones. How else are the two experiences similar? Neither is ever quite as bad as you think it’s going to be. But if you suspect I’m being foolishly optimistic about holiday travel not being torture, here are 25 tips that may make your trip a little jollier.

1. Be flexible with your travel dates when booking holiday fares, says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, so that you can “avoid holiday surcharges on peak dates. Surcharges this year cost from $10 to $30 extra each way.”

2. Identify smaller airports near the major ones you ordinarily use “for some great deals,” says Casey Wohl, author of the Girls Getaway Guide.”For example, I found some better deals flying in and out of Sanford, Florida vs. Orlando International, and Sanford is just 30 minutes north of OIA.”

3. Know which airlines are most and least likely to bump you, says Hilary Stockton of Travel Sort. “JetBlue has a policy of not overbooking, so it very rarely denies boarding to passengers, followed by Hawaiian Airlines. The airlines most likely to bump passengers? American Eagle, US Airways, and Continental,” she says, based on analysis of early 2010 data. You’re less likely to get bumped, she says, if you snag a seat assignment early, check in online, and enroll in your airline’s frequent flier program.

4. Know which airlines commonly offer refunds when your airfare drops before the holidays, says Will Aldrich, vice president of TripIt.com.  The top refunders “are Virgin America, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue and Frontier Airlines, each of which has offered refunds in conjunction with over 20% of their flights. The average traveler is saving between $100-$150 when they contact the airline for a refund.”

5. Don’t get jacked by your credit card company if you’re flying overseas, urges travel guide author James Kaiser. “Make sure your credit cards don't charge a 3% international transaction fee, he says. “Most do, Capital One doesn't. That 3% fee will add up quick on large purchases like hotels.”

6. Know which airlines are offering free Wi-Fi during the holidays, says Banas, noting that AirTran, Delta, and Virgin America are providing fliers with the free service through January 2.

7. Get a few workouts in before taking off for the holidays, suggests trip wellness specialist Elaine Masters. “Just as an athlete prepares for a marathon, another stress-buster is to get extra cardio in the week to few days before you leave,” even “walking briskly for 30 minutes a day,” she says. “This will help relieve accumulating stress about traveling, boost your immune system, [and will help your] circulation and digestion adjust to being sedentary on long drives and flights.”

8. Arrive at the airport in time for the flight that leaves before the one you’re booked on, says airefarewatchdog founder George Hobica.”If for some reason your scheduled flight or a connecting flight is delayed or canceled, this gives the airline the opportunity, assuming seats are available, to put you on the earlier flight.” When faced with this situation Hobica says “the airline offered me the next-earliest flight” telling him he’d “better hightail it through security because I'm leaving in 15 minutes.”

9. Know ahead of time how early your airline is checking passengers in, says Brooke Spillberg, eCommerce manager at Lonely Planet. “Some airlines have a very early check-in and if you aren’t there on time, they will immediately put you on stand-by even if you paid full price months in advance.”

10. Know how to safeguard your bags at the airport, says Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com. “Whenever at a counter always place bags on the counter or between your legs,” he says, because if the bags are to your left or right “a distraction thief will approach your opposite side and talk to you while their accomplice takes your stuff.”

11. Follow this sequence when placing valuables on the airport x-ray belt. “Shoes and belt in their bin go in first,” suggests Larry Kaminer, president, of the Personal Safety Group. “Next your carryon bag, then the laptop bag followed by your” 3-1-1 toiletry bag. “Only let the laptop onto the belt as you are about to step through the metal detector. You don't need for your laptop to be floating around unattended on the ‘other side’ for longer than necessary.” Also slap on your laptop’s bottom a label with your first initial, last name, and phone number as the laptop won’t be in its case during its belt ride, says Kaminer.

12. Stow snow globes in your checked bag, as evidently enough of us try so hard to bring these holiday gems to and from our destinations that the TSA has a rule about not having them in carry-ons. “They are sealed containers full of liquid that would have to be opened and destroyed to test,” explains the TSA.

13. Feel free to bring pies and cakes through airport security this holiday season, though the TSA notes that the baked goods are “subject to additional screening if our officers see any anomalies.”

14. If you have kids, prepare them for the possibility that they may be patted down, assuring them that they will not be separated from you. Likewise, assure little ones that you will be okay if you’re pulled aside for additional screening.

15. Help yourself avoid a pat-down, Banas says, by not wearing “jewelry, belts, or anything with metal, adding that “some belts, even non-metallic [ones], can interfere with the body scanner imaging, so it's best to keep them off so you won't get slowed down.”

16. Remove any body piercings before heading through security, because if the metal sets off the detector the TSA reserves the right to have you remove the piercings privately as an alternative to a pat-down. Also keep in mind that bras with under wires and hair barrettes with metal pieces may set off the metal detector, so consider amending your travel outfit accordingly.

17. If you’re picked for a pat-down or body scan, don’t leave your valuables on the x-ray belt, says Sally Treadwell, communications director at www.PeopleClaim.com. “The agent should allow you to either retrieve your belongings or retrieve them for you. On a recent trip to the UK I was very unnerved to find someone huddling over my laptop bin. Nothing was taken, but I sure was glad my pat-down hadn't lasted any longer.”

18. Thwart carry-on thieves on board the plane by shoving your luggage “in the compartment over the person’s head across from you,” Siciliano says. “This way you can watch it. Otherwise if it is over your head someone can act as if they are getting something out of their luggage when it is yours.”

19. Download white noise or sleep-stream apps onto your iPhone, suggests frequent traveler Lori MacGregor. “I like the white noise setting but plenty of iPhone apps have ocean waves, rustling leaves, etc. that basically just calm the mind and drown out screaming children.”

20. Pamper yourself in flight by placing a small pillow or its equivalent behind your lower back for support, suggests holistic family doctor Tom Potisk, as “aiding the natural curvature of the lower spine in this way will prevent the back pain. To avoid swollen ankles, make sure you stand up and walk every few hours, or at least rotate your feet while sitting, as if drawing a circle with your big toe.”

21. Don’t succumb to “wrap rage” when opening gifts, says Chris Noble, general manager of WorldNomads.com. “It’s easy to laugh at this, but there are a significant amount of injuries related to opening gifts, especially with those notoriously difficult ‘oyster shell’ plastic seal enclosures,” he says. “The Consumer Product Safety Commission made an estimate that 6,500 Americans visited emergency rooms in 2004 with “wrap-rage” related incidents -- some requiring serious treatment.”

22. If you’re not going home for the holidays, seek out deals, says Lonely Planet U.S. travel editor Robert Reid, because while “hotels and airfares tend to go up from Dec 23 or 24 through” New Year’s, he says he’s “finding some traditional tourist destinations, like Vegas and Orlando, actually have some reduced fares that week, costing a bit less than they do in mid-December.”

23. Save money on a holiday getaway by considering the type of trip you want rather than thinking about a specific destination or property, says Andrea Mooney, site editor for Cheapflights.com. “Be open to a cruise to anywhere in the Caribbean rather than just to Aruba. Or decide on a ski trip and look at Wyoming, Utah, and Oregon rather than a specific resort in Colorado.”

24. Ski the week before Christmas and save, suggests Stephen Daimler of vacation rental marketplace PackLate.com, who says that upon analyzing rentals in more than 10 resorts out west he found that if you ski the week before December 25 versus anytime through January 1, “there is 50% more availability and the average price of a vacation rental is 25% less.” The average rental price the week after Xmas is $647, he notes. The week before? $493.

25. Adjust your attitude for holiday travel and “keep things in perspective,” says psychologist and author Elizabeth R. Lombardo. “If you have to wait an extra couple hours at the airport because of some unforeseen event, such as bad weather, remind yourself that you are safe and on the ground,” and whether you’re stranded at the airport or in holiday traffic it might help to “ask yourself ‘what is good about my life right here and now?’ Consider the fact that you are going to visit people you love [and] you have the means to travel,” she says, adding that you should “force yourself to come up with at least five positives” in your life.