holiday travel chaos

Photo by Denverkid.

Flying can be a hassle at the best of times, but there are two factors that can really make an already annoying situation worse: the congestion that occurs during the holidays when everybody is trying to get home to their families, and the weather delays that are commonplace at this time of year.

Those two factors can trigger a whole barrage of dramas. Being bumped off your flight, getting stranded at the airport over Christmas, or losing your luggage (which was full of presents), are just some of the nightmare scenarios that await travelers. Fortunately, a little preparation and know-how can go a long way towards ensuring you don’t end up a victim.

9 holiday travel tips to help you stay sane

1. Travel out of small airports. If you’ve left it to the last minute to book your Christmas vacation flights and prices have all shot through the roof, do a search on flights departing and arriving from secondary airports. You might have to drive an extra 30 minutes or an hour to reach it, but the financial savings are potentially huge. Remember that smaller airports don’t have to be a last resort either. Flying through these airports – which generally have shorter check-in and security lines and are all around less chaotic – can make for a much more pleasant experience at this time of year. Want to know which airports to avoid? Here’s a list of the world’s busiest airports and here’s a list of the busiest airports in the US.

2. Try to get a direct flight. Whenever you have to make a transfer, there’s always the risk you won’t make your connecting flight. This is especially true if you have a very short layover or the weather is bad (a definite risk in the northern hemisphere) since even a slight delay on your first flight could mean missing the second flight. If you can’t book a direct flight, check that the airport you’ll be transiting in has got several flights to your final destination scheduled that day, so you can be sure you’ll arrive at your end destination in time for Christmas.

3. Pre-book your airport parking spot. There’s nothing more annoying than arriving at the airport early only to have all your buffer time lost as you circle the airport parking lot trying to find a spot. Of course, if you can take public transit or a taxi, you can avoid this scenario entirely, but sometimes driving is your only option. If that’s the case, consider booking your parking spot ahead of time – many airports around the world allow you to do this. Here’s a site where you can find links to airport parking information for the US, UK and Canada.

4. Get to the airport early and bring your own boarding pass. Flights during the holiday season are likely to be overbooked, especially if weather conditions are wreaking havoc. To ensure you’re not the person that gets bumped from the flight, make sure you arrive well in advance of your scheduled departure and bring your pre-printed boarding pass with you. Not only will you skip the lines for check-in, but you can also double check your seat reservations have been honored. The longer you wait to check-in, the more likely you’ll be split up from other people in your party and placed in whatever seats are left.

5. Have the airline’s contact info handy. If your flight is cancelled, you’ll likely find yourself in a long line of passengers waiting to speak with an airline representative. By the time you get to the front, your next potential flight may have already filled up or departed. Oftentimes, it’s actually faster and more effective to call the airline and have them sort out your rebooking over the phone, so be sure to have the contact numbers with you. Another great option is to use social media to voice your complaint, as many airlines constantly monitor their twitter stream and respond to grievances right away – you can read more about how people have been rebooked on flights after tweeting their problems.

6. Travel carry-on only if you can. It’s easy for bags to get delayed or lost given the chaos that goes on in airports during the holiday season – and imagine the disappointment if you’d packed Christmas presents in those bags. Save yourself the stress and travel carry-on only whenever possible. As an added bonus, traveling without checked luggage means it’ll be much easier to switch flights in the event your flight is delayed or cancelled. This is because it’s a hassle for airlines to switch checked luggage from one flight to another and many carriers will decline your request to rebook if there isn’t enough time for them to retrieve your bag before the next flight.

7. Pack a spare bag. Remember that you’ll likely be bringing presents back home with you, so either leave some space in your luggage for them, pack a spare duffel that you can fill up, or just ask your family for cash or gift cards.

8. Ship or prep your gifts for air travel. The easiest way of dealing with presents that you are a carrying onboard for family is to simply avoid carrying them in the first place. Consider ordering your gifts online and having them shipped directly to your recipient (you may need to warn them to expect the delivery). Even if you bought the gifts in a brick and mortar store, there’s no reason you couldn’t mail them to family members yourself. There’s always the option of giving gift cards as well. While they might not seem as exciting or thoughtful to you, some people (especially teenagers with very specific tastes) may actually prefer them to whatever else you had in mind. Finally, if you do pack gifts in your luggage (either checked or carry-on), remember to leave them unwrapped – security may need to inspect the items and will make you unwrap them in order to do so.

9. Pack sanity-saving entertainment. Come prepared to distract yourself from the frustration of delays and the stress of chaotic crowds. Bring along a book you’ve been dying to read, some relaxing or energizing (take your pick) music on your ipod, sudoku or crosswords, as well as games and toys if you’re traveling with kids.

What do you think? Do you have any other tips for keeping the blood pressure down when traveling over the holidays?