The season of turkey, snow, and mistletoe is also the season of weather delays, gridlocked security checkpoints, and overbooked flights. Even the most experienced travelers won't be able to escape some of the headaches we mention below, but with some careful planning, your holiday travel experience may beat the status quo.
Travel Woe #1: Let it snow, but not now. There's nothing like sipping hot cocoa by the fire while watching the snow fall through a frosty window, but if you don't make it to your destination before a blizzard strikes, you might be spending the holidays at home -- or stranded in an unfamiliar airport during a missed connection. Stormy weather can ground flights year-round, but holiday cancellations are especially frequent and inconvenient.
Travel Woe #2: The big freeze. Has your plane ever pushed back from the gate on time, only to spend an hour in line for de-icing? Consider yourself very lucky. De-icing a plane can be very costly for an airline. This means that even though the skies are clear, your flight could end up being canceled so the airline can avoid paying to de-ice the plane. This also means that your flight could be canceled to keep half-full planes from clogging up the de-icing queue. If you're on an international flight (notably those to cities with only once-daily service), you may be slightly delayed, but your flight should continue as scheduled to avoid stranding passengers overseas.
Travel Woe #3: Mid-day delay. Departure delays tend to increase as the day progresses, so try to book the first flight of the day, even if that means trekking to the airport just a few hours after your bedtime. If you're on the first flight, chances are your aircraft will already be at the gate from the night before. You may even be able to confirm your flight before going to bed. If nearly empty, however, your flight may still be canceled because of bad weather (or to avoid de-icing) -- unless not having the plane available at its destination will result in a greater expense for the airline.
Travel Woe #4: The Windy City. Wind and snow are responsible for enough flight delays and cancellations on their own, but when combined, it can turn into a nightmare. If a direct flight isn't available, then choose cities like Dallas, Miami, or Los Angeles for connections, even if there's a route that's more direct. Avoid cities where winter weather can be expected, like Chicago, which serves as a hub for American (www.aa.com), United (www.united.com), and Southwest (www.southwest.com). Winter weather can still hit cities like Dallas by surprise, however, and winter weather-prone cities like Chicago are better equipped to respond to storms.
Travel Woe #5: Flight rebooking. In recent years, some airlines have added dedicated rebooking desks within the secure area of the airport, so passengers that have already been processed through security can stay in the terminal. But while typically more manageable than check-in desks, rebooking queues can be very long. When it comes to canceled flights, every second counts when you're fighting other passengers for a seat. Elite passengers have dedicated phone lines, and airport lounge members can beat the rush by using their own dedicated agents. But if you're stuck waiting behind dozens (or sometimes hundreds) of other stranded passengers, consider calling the airline's booking line from your cell phone as you wait in person -- you may be able to reach someone on the phone before you make it to the desk. Also, always check your flight status before you leave for the airport -- and sign up for real-time text or voice flight status updates, if offered by your airline.
Travel Woe #6: Airport check-in. You can avoid the check-in line by printing your boarding pass at home, but what if you have too much luggage to carry on the plane? Designated baggage drop lines are typically manageable during the rest of the year, but the holidays bring out travelers who aren't familiar with check-in kiosks or who don't know about carry-on restrictions or baggage fees. And if you're checking a bag, you'll need to wait behind all of them.
Travel Woe #7: Security gridlock. Sure, you've heard the 3-1-1 pitch before, but some holiday travelers may not be familiar with liquid carry-on restrictions at all and may put up a fight when a TSA agent confiscates their snow globe. This, combined with a surge in passenger traffic, can result in missed flights even if you think you've left plenty of time to get to your gate. If your flight is boarding soon, request assistance from airline representatives -- they may able to help you skip the line, even if a TSA agent tells you otherwise.
Travel Woe #8: Confusion at the gate. Think you're safe once your flight has begun boarding? Even if your flight boards on time, confused and frustrated travelers can still cause delays. If passengers take too long to board, your aircraft could lose its departure slot, resulting in additional delays, especially if a storm is approaching. Overbooked flights can also result in delays, if the airline is unable to find volunteers -- but who could blame them; do you really want to risk getting stranded in exchange for a $250 travel voucher with an airline that you'll swear you'll never fly again?
Travel Woe #9: Grumpy flight attendants. Passengers complain about seating arrangements, try to stuff oversized rolling bags under seats, or vent about delays to airline employees. Even experienced flight attendants can become overwhelmed. After all, they're faced with the same delays that you are and are probably not getting paid extra to wait. If you happen to find a flight attendant that's still able to force a smile, be sure to thank them -- they might even be able to make the rest of your holiday trip slightly more pleasant.
Travel Woe #10: Clogged in-flight Wi-Fi. Some business travelers depend on Gogo's in-flight Wi-Fi service to work during a transcontinental flight. Just in time for the holidays, some Gogo-equippped airlines -- AirTran (www.airtran.com), Delta (www.delta.com), and Virgin America (www.virginamerica.com) -- are offering free Wi-Fi service, with Google footing the bill from Nov. 20 until Jan. 2. Google's generosity means that more non-business travelers will be free to browse the Web at will, uploading holiday photos to Facebook, watching videos on YouTube, and perhaps even video chatting with friends -- if they're clever enough to circumvent Gogo's firewall.
Holiday Travel Survival Tips
Truth be told, holiday travel is not all doom and gloom. Follow these three basic tips to survive the holiday travel crowds.
Fly on holidays. If you're able to travel on an actual holiday, such as Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, or New Year's Eve, you'll likely be able to avoid most of the congestion, and may even score cheaper airfares. If at all possible, avoid the days immediately before and after a holiday.
Avoid connections whenever possible, unless of course a direct ticket is prohibitively expensive.
Take a proper vacation instead. If you're not going to visit family this year, or have a family willing to enjoy a holiday abroad, consider a destination Thanksgiving, for example -- you won't be fighting with Thanksgiving travelers in Europe or the Caribbean, and fares leaving the U.S. even tend to be more affordable than domestic fares during this time.
Have a holiday travel story to share? Feel free to sound off in the comments, and please share your holiday travel tips as well.
Having visited nearly 30 countries on 5 continents in the last decade, Zach Honig's fascination with travel has clearly become an obsession. Follow Zach on Twitter (@zachhonig), or check out his blog, Tech, Travel and Tuna, to keep up to date on his latest adventures.