Take your car in for a tune-up. Give yourself extra time if you're flying. Oh, and it's going to be one for the record books.
You've read that before, haven't you?
When it comes to the travel tips you see just before every major holiday, you can count on paint-by-numbers reporting: a AAA prediction followed by a sound bite from one of three travel "experts" (always the same three) followed by that familiar advice, dispensed in easy-to-read bullet points.
But which tips are cliches that should be ignored, and which are bona fide, you-must-do-this advice? If you've been reading these stories as long as I have, you must be wondering.
Blame tradition for this mess. What would the holiday season be without a "Yes, Virginia" editorial and a prediction of how many people are expected to travel more than 50 miles from home? Any intern can cobble together the story. Believe me; I've done five internships and have written it at least as many times.
(Incidentally, did you ever wonder why no one ever follows up on those travel predictions to find out whether X million drivers actually were on the road? Might have something to do with the feasibility of verifying travel forecasts. But that's another story.)
One of the most-recycled pieces of holiday advice is, "Get there early." It comes in two flavors: Arrive at the airport early, or start your road trip to Grandma's house early. We're spoon-fed that advice from a variety of sources. The implication is that earlier is always better for the holiday traveler, which isn't necessarily true. Some of the most experienced travelers I know wait until the last minute to get on the road or, for that matter, to make their travel plans.
By driving or flying on Thanksgiving or on Christmas Eve, you not only avoid traffic but also can save a bundle on your plane ticket.
Airlines price their fares based on demand, so on days when no one wants to fly, rates drop.
Another timeworn tip is to get a tune-up for your car. A 2006 story on a Pittsburgh news site urged holiday travelers to "have a maintenance check before hitting the road. That means get a tune-up, including an oil change."
Oh, please! Have you ever heard someone telling holiday motorists -- or, for that matter, anyone -- to hit the road in an un-tuned vehicle?
Don't change the oil in your car. Don't check the tire pressure.
If you need to be told to maintain your car, maybe you shouldn't be driving.
Ditto if you need to hear any of the following: Pack a snack for the road; book your trip early because fares are lower; stay with relatives instead of at a hotel to save money; call to confirm your flight; check the weather forecast.
Truth is, some of that advice is only half true, anyway. Booking early, for instance, is reasonably good advice any time of the year, but it's not always correct. Airlines and hotels can discount their fares at the last minute, and in this economy, you might pay more for your travel by buying too early.
Staying with relatives? Not even going there.
How about phoning ahead to confirm your flight? Surely that's sound advice. Well, kinda. Calling is fine. But you're better off logging on to your airline's Web site, selecting your seats and printing your boarding passes. Checking the weather is probably an act of futility, because never in my 41 Thanksgivings on this planet have I canceled a holiday road trip because of inclement weather. Pack chains and go:
The turkey's getting cold.
I also object to the way these holiday-travel stories are framed.
Travel is almost never projected to remain flat from one holiday to the next. It's either up dramatically or it plunges. Records are being broken incessantly. Nothing like a little drama to sell the story.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the participation of several talking heads who make the rounds on TV just before every major travel holiday, peddling the same sorry advice along with their latest book or Internet business. I can hardly fault them, because in a sense, the fourth estate has nurtured these "experts" and taught them to speak in simple sentences for our benefit. Also, they return my calls when I'm on deadline.
I probably should have stepped out of my glass house before writing that last paragraph. When my next book is published, I'm sure I'll turn into one of those media-trained experts, too.
I just hope it'll be a holiday for the record books. Betcha it will be.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.