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A Holiday Survival Guide: 5 Things You Absolutely Must Know

The upcoming travel season will be different than past ones in several important ways. You need more than promises of warm fuzzies. You need a survival guide.

Ask Suzy Bennett how she's approaching the 2009 holiday travel season, and she'll tell you she isn't.

"We're staying home," says Bennett, who works for a water treatment company in Linwood, Kansas. "Or we're driving."

Why? Like many other travelers, Bennett is tired of the nonexistent customer service that seems to be the standard these days, and which only gets worse as the inevitable crush of passengers descends on every airport, bus station and train terminal between now and New Year's Day.

"It's just not worth the aggravation of flying, except when absolutely necessary," she said. "My husband and I will drive the 600 miles to our family for the holiday and not be any more tired or annoyed than by flying. Plus, we won't have to worry about luggage and gifts."

That's the bad news. The good news? Travelers are a lot more optimistic about how they'll get where they're going during the holidays. A survey conducted by the digital marketing firm Zeta Interactive found that the online buzz about holiday travel is trending 84 percent positive, as opposed to just 68 percent positive a year ago. Among the top terms used by bloggers in association with the 2009 holidays were words like "enjoy" (14 percent), "relax" (12 percent) and "rest" (11 percent).

Ah, almost makes you want to drive to Grandma's this year.

Snap out of it!

The upcoming travel season will be different than past ones in several important ways. You need more than promises of warm fuzzies. You need a survival guide.

Here you go:

1. Most of Us Will Only Travel if We Have To

That's the assessment of Juline Mills, who teaches at the University of New Haven's department of hospitality management. "The upcoming travel season will see people traveling primarily to visit friends and relatives, and not so much for leisure vacations," she says.

That is a significant departure from previous holidays, in which Americans used Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's to get away. For those of us who do decide to go somewhere, Mills predicts more people will cruise, because it's "the best deal in travel," adding, "meals, lodging, and most activities are included."

Survival strategy: If you don't stay home, steer clear of a cruise vacation. You'll avoid the crowds.

2. Last-Minute Is In

The time between booking and departure is growing ever shorter, to the point where the "last-minute" vacation is becoming the norm.

The 2009 holiday travel season will see more 11th-hour getaways than ever, says Helen Fullem, president or The Crown Collection, a Paramus, N.J.-based marketing group for luxury hotels. "Every year in the past that I can remember -- going 30 years back -- the best hotels in the Caribbean were virtually sold out by the middle of the year," she said.

"Travelers would pay any price in order to secure reservations for the entire family at some of the chicest and most expensive resorts and be grateful that they even secured the space, at whatever cost," she added.

This year, those same travelers have more options than ever. And many of them aren't deciding on a holiday destination until days before their departure. She's seen customers booking their European vacations "two to three days in advance."

Survival strategy: For the best flight and hotel options, book at least a week in advance, if not more.

3. Try Not to Miss Your Flight

If you do, you might be unable to catch another plane until 2010. That's particularly true if you're flying over the Christmas holiday. Airlines have cut their schedules to the point where every last seat is spoken for -- especially during the busy holiday season. Observers say we haven't seen such tight capacity in many years, if ever.

"Fewer flights mean fewer ways for airlines to re-accommodate passengers, both those who volunteer to give up seats, as well as those who miss their flights," says Seth Kaplan, a managing partner for Airline Weekly, a trade publication. "Showing up on time is more important than ever, because the next flight to a destination will, on average, be further in the future than it would have been last year."

Survival strategy: Call your airline to double-check your departure, and give yourself plenty of time to check in at the airport.

4. You'll Probably Pay a Luggage Fee

It's safe to say more travelers than ever will pay extra to transport their luggage and presents during the 2009 holidays than at any other time. Airlines have discovered their money tree, and its name is baggage fees.

"I see this finally making an impact, not so much on the first checked bag but on the second bag," says Susan Foster, author of "Smart Packing for Today's Traveler." She predicts air travelers will try to consolidate their bags to avoid additional fees, and more "bin rage" as passengers fight for increasingly scarce overhead space for their property.

Her advice? Weigh your bag pre-flight, get familiar with your airline's luggage policies and ship any gifts ahead so that you don't have to haggle with your carrier over fees.

Survival strategy: Bring only a carry-on bag.

5. It's a Wi-Fi World Up There

A recent survey concluded that 62 percent of leisure travelers would carry a smart phone this year, compared with just 19 percent a year ago. And nowhere will that change be more apparent than on a plane, according to Mike Benjamin, the chief executive of FlightView, a developer of phone applications for travelers.

Chances are better than ever that you'll be able to access a hotspot on your plane during this holiday travel season, empowering you "with more information than ever," he said. " With no major changes in how air traffic works, coupled with unpredictable weather, travelers headed to the airport this holiday season will be armed with actionable flight information that they know how to access and use."

Survival strategy: Pack your phone in your carry-on bag. You may need it.

While some things will be different this holiday season, others will remain unchanged. For example, there's still a "peak season" when you may not find a room or flight, according to Scott Berman, a hotel analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "For the two weeks between Christmas and New Year's, I would not expect much discounting," he told me. "Before and after those two weeks, there will be more value."

Another thing that hasn't changed: Even with a preponderance of bargains, you still have to shop carefully. "The key is to look at the best value versus the best rate," said Matthew Upchurch, the chief executive of Virtuoso, a consortium of travel agents that specialize in luxury travel.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that a Virtuoso agent -- actually, any travel agent -- can help you determine if a deal's really a deal.

I wanted to end this story on a positive note, to say something like, "We don't have to all be like Bennett and stay home," but who am I kidding? The 2009 holidays will be unlike any we've ever seen, and are likely to see again.

Pack these survival tips -- or don't pack at all.

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

(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.