Holidays bring out the best and the worst in us. A spirit of community is often in conflict with actually having to deal with members of that community when everyone is out on the road or in the air traveling to hometowns across the country. According to the American Automobile Association, more Americans are traveling for Thanksgiving this year than last. More than 31 million people -- 86 percent of all travelers -- will drive, and another 4.6 million will fly, the AAA says. That's a lot of community.
Procrastinators will find sky-high air and rail fares for the turkey week right now, and Christmas and New Year's down the pike. There are a ways to reduce stress while saving time and money on these mandatory trips. Here are our tips for surviving your holiday travel.
Before You Go
1. Ignore what the airlines are saying about current sales. Several airlines are advertising Holiday sales right now. But these sales don't apply on the Tuesdays or Wednesdays before Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years, or on the Sundays after rendering these "sales" almost useless, unless you're willing to fly on the actual holidays -- and what kind of holiday would that be?
2. Don't travel on Sundays after holidays. If you absolutely must fly, forget about coming home on Sunday, Nov. 30, Dec. 28 or Jan 4; these are the busiest travel days of the year, and flights are terribly expensive. Check for flights on Friday or Saturday instead.
You save much more by avoiding Sunday than you do by avoiding the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. For instance, a Wednesday flight out and Sunday return from New York to Chicago is $390 on Orbitz. If you fly back on Saturday or Monday instead, the price goes down to $259. Arriving earlier than Wednesday, though, only saves you $17.
For more details on the best dates to travel, see our article at www.frommers.com/activities/air/article.cfm?articleid=1484&destid=AIRFARE.
3. Book an early flight. This will give you a better chance of getting to your destination on the same day should your flight be cancelled or delayed to increased traffic or inclement weather. Speaking of which, register for cell phone alerts from your carrier's website and you'll be automatically notified of changes and delays.
4. Many airports now have hotels within the terminals or nearby. Staying the night before an early morning return flight is a good way to alleviate the inconvenience of staying at a relative's homes, plus you'll be more refreshed and you can arrive early enough to claim better seats.
5. Leave your itinerary with a relative or friend including how you can be reached at each location.
6. Break-ins increase over the holidays when so many people are away from home. A few simple precautions can help prevent burglaries.
- Suspend newspaper service and put your mail on hold; these that shout, "We're away! Please come and rob us!"
- Buy a timer to regulate your lights, TV and stereo. Set them at random intervals to give the illusion that someone is home.
- Have a neighbor park in your driveway.
- Move valuables out of easy eyesight but don't keep the shades down all day -- people don't do this when they are at home.
- Notify your local police precinct and request occasional drive-bys.
7. Clean your refrigerator. Take out all the garbage and recycling. Coming home to find miscellaneous critters, insects and mold have made themselves at home is an unpleasant welcome home.
8. Make arrangements for taking care of any animals well in advance. If you're taking Fido or Buttons with you by car bring plenty of water in sealed bottles and enough food for two extra days just in case of emergency. Friday Forsthoff, founder of www.aspecialpet.com, a website dedicated to information and products to make life easier for older pets, advises people to make a "pet health journal" -- listing everything about companion animals' medical history and needs. "Include vet, vaccine records, medications, foods, treats, contact information, a picture and personal notes on each one." If you're not driving, you should leave your pet at home. Spaces in kennels and pet walkers' schedules fill up quickly. Plan ahead. Airlines impose strict regulations on when pets can and can't fly; they can't during periods of extreme heat or cold or during exceptionally heavy traffic (read "holidays"). If you simply can't part from your pet, there are a number of hotels catering to the 30+ million people who agree with you. Joining www.fidofriendlytravelclub.com will get you discounts from pet-friendly establishments and earn you special amenities.
9. The stress of getting back to the real world after a great trip can be overwhelming and may even eat into the last few days of the trip. Joan Lang, M.D., chair of the department of psychiatry at Saint Louis University School of Medicine suggests planning a few fun or enjoyable treats to do after coming home. Some suggestions include making an appointment at a spa (even a manicure will do), setting a lunch date with a close friend or taping a favorite show or game to watch upon when you return.
If You Have Kids
10. Discuss the rules before leaving home. If you're loosening up the restrictions for the holidays, reinforce that the suspension of certain rules is temporary.
11. Create a packing checklist (and keep it updated as they get older). This allows your children to take responsibility for their part in the family trip, and preplanning avoids last-minute meltdowns. As Gayle Conran, whose child logged more than 100,000 frequent flier miles in her first 14 months says, "Packing for a kid is a like a puzzle. If you forget one thing, the whole plan can topple."
12. If you're flying, bring foods that don't require any special care or preparation. Unless you are traveling first class or have your own plane the likelihood of getting inflight assistance with food is practically nil, especially when so many carriers are cutting out meals or charging for them.
13. Keep the toll-free telephone number of the poison control center hotline handy (800/222-1222). This is especially relevant if visiting grandparents who take medicine or households without locks on cabinets with cleansers and other chemicals. As Chris Falk of the American Association of Poison Control Centers points out, 51% of all calls to the hotline are for kids who have accidentally ingested adult medicine. A full 80% of calls prevent a trip to the emergency room.
1. Getting your gifts to where they need to be is possibly the biggest hassle of all. Don't fret -- here are four ways to approach the problem.
- Buy online. Many retailers, and almost all big chain stores, have websites that wrap and ship items for free or for a minimal fee. This is the best way to avoid the inconvenience of packing gifts. Be sure to call ahead to the recipient's home so that no one opens the box.
- Buy them locally, then send them ahead. Shipping your gifts is another affordable option. By shipping them yourself or having the retailer ship them, you leave room in your suitcase and avoid the risks associated with transporting them in luggage or as carry on (i.e. theft, baggage loss, security). An added advantage is that you can have the presents already wrapped. Pack them securely in a shipping carton, then head to yoru delivery service of choice (FedEx, UPS, postal service, etc.) Another advantage to this method is insurance: For a few extra pennies you can be reimbursed for the full cost of lost or damaged items. Packed in a suitcase you will only receive the maximum allowable by the Warsaw Convention: $900 and that is only if the luggage is lost.
- Take them with you -- as cargo. With this method, your gifts get checked with your luggage. You can pack them as above, but the downsides are extra baggage fees due to weight and number of items and little reimbursement for loss or damage.
- Take them with you -- as carry on. If you have no option but to take gifts in your suitcase or carry on, don't even think of wrapping them until you reach your destination. This will prevent battered gift syndrome and decrease security hassles as wrapped gifts can always be opened by airport security.
2. Pack those chargers. Cellphones, cameras and Gameboys come with their own power supplies -- when they run out juice, so can your holiday. The last thing you want to do on vacation is run around trying to buy a new charger before you can snap photos of the grand kids or call for directions when you get lost. Make a checklist of the electronic equipment you'll be bringing then make sure you've packed the charger or spare batteries for each. The night before you leave, fully charge all equipment. This is especially important for cell phones -- if you're flight is delayed once you get to the airport, don't wait in line to rebook, call the carrier's toll-free reservation number, which you've already smartly programmed into your phone.
3. Don't put medication in checked luggage. Most US pharmacies will provide one or two of any medication without a prescription (obvious exclusions include medicinal marijuana and other controlled substances such as Vicodin). If you'll be traveling internationally, bring extra and carry it in two separate locations in case of theft or loss. Prescription medications vary by country, what is readily available over the counter in one country may be restricted in another. Additionally, Grand Circle Travel, a tour group for people over 50, suggests traveling with the following:
- Foreign trade names and generic names of any prescription medicine
- Back up copies of prescriptions
- Relevant medical history
4. Carryon a backup kit. Traveling can be made much more pleasant when a few items are kept on hand:
- Pain relievers
- Toothbrush & toothpaste
- One change of clothes
- Face and hand creams
- Prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses
5. Coordinate your wardrobe around a single color. Pick neutral, preferably dark, colors that won't show dirt and are easily mixed and matched. This will make for lighter bags and faster dressing.
6. Pack your film in your carry on and request that it be hand inspected. Passing film through the new, stronger x-ray machines at security is an easy way to destroy holiday pictures. To avoid this entirely, buy film once you're at your destination and have the pictures developed there, or go digital.
7. You WILL return with more than you took. Minimize the effects by weeding out what you really won't use or don't need (yes, that includes the jeans you optimistically take along but haven't fit into for 15 years) and packing an extra nylon bag such as a Sportsac.
1. Use credit cards and ATMs for purchases when abroad Using your credit card can earn you those much-coveted miles, and your purchases are insured. Some credit cards, however, will charge up to a 3% conversion charge in foreign countries; call the issuing bank to learn specific policies. Take a small amount of cash with you, and use automatic teller machines to refill your supply. You can join our discussion on currency by clicking here.
2. You should make copies of all your documents and credit cards. Make sure you are able to read the telephone numbers to call in case of loss. Pack these separately and leave an additional copy back home or with someone who can quickly fax them if necessary.
3. Contact your credit card company to let them know you will be traveling at least a week before the trip. Credit card issuers state that is a normal procedure to refuse all charges when there is significant out-of-pattern use of the card. Save yourself the hassle.
4. Arrange payment for any bills that may come due while you're away.
1. Call ahead to confirm flight, bus, train and cruise departures. Double check with your hotel to verify reservations and in all cases, arm yourself with copies of bookings including reservation and confirmation numbers and rates.
2. Know what is allowed and not allowed on flights. Security lines go faster when everyone knows what to expect. Educate yourself by visiting the Transportation Security Administration's site at www.tsa.gov before you leave home.
3. Give yourself ample time. Fewer flights and tighter restrictions mean missing your flight can cost you even more time and money. Leave well ahead of schedule and you'll have wiggle room when you encounter unexpected delays like traffic jams, inclement weather or security lines that move at a snail's pace. Save time on hunting for a parking space by arranging a car service or taxi -- it often costs less than parking and is more considerate than asking harried friends, coworkers or family for a ride. If your plans are flexible, ask the gate agent if your flight is overbooked and see if you can get bumped for free money or free flights -- but before getting bumped, make sure the airline will confirm you on a later flight so you won't be stuck in the airport overnight.
4. Take advantage of membership status, especially on code share flights. Most airlines have created separate (and faster!) check-in and customer service sections for high-tier frequent flyer members and business/first class passengers. If you've earned special status with your frequent flier program, use it to your advantage. You can go to the elite lines when flying any carrier that is a member of an air carrier alliance, such as Onestar. If there is no designated line for elite frequent fliers, you're typically permitted to go in the business and first class lines.
5. September Wade, an American Airlines spokesperson, points out a great way to save time on national journeys: use the alternative check-in options. Most major airlines have curbside check in, self-service kiosks for e-tickets, and the ability to print a boarding passes for domestic flights directly online from home.
6. Lines are inevitable. Getting frustrated and angry is not. Bring something along to pass the time for yourself and the kids. Books may be low tech, but they are still an ideal form of easy, fast, portable and cheap entertainment. Gameboys work, too.
7. If you don't have a cell phone or will be traveling somewhere it doesn't work, buy a calling card as soon as you arrive at the destination. Using your credit card, phone company calling card or a hotel phone is outrageously expensive (a three minute call can be $8 nationally, an international one $55). One of those local calling cards are typically less than three cents per call (with a 39 cent connection fee).
8. Take the bus. Greyhound recently offered 15% off on tickets between many major cities and large towns for people willing to start their travel on Saturday or Sunday, Nov. 22-23 for Thanksgiving travel. Prices are still more expensive than their usual advance-purchase fares, but hey, it's still a discount, and we expect to see more for Christmas timeFor details and to buy tickets, see www.greyhound.com/discounts.
Even better deals are available on the expanding Chinese bus networks, which aren't raising fares for the holidays. Chinese buses travel between New York and New England, the mid-Atlantic states and the South, between LA and Las Vegas and between LA and San Francisco. Fares are as low as $35 roundtrip between New York and DC. We've taken the Chinese buses from New York to Boston (with Fung Wah) and DC (with Eastern Travel), and while the drivers regularly exceed the speed limits, we found the buses more efficient and comfortable than Greyhound. Just make sure you're getting a big bus and not a little van. Book all Chinese buses online at www.ivymedia.com/bus.
9. If you're driving, stay alert, drive defensively, and leave plenty of time. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, alcohol and fatigue mix to make Thanksgiving weekend one of the deadliest in the year. The weather is also often miserable, unless your Thanksgiving is in San Diego (and if it is, can we come?).
10. Jerry Cheske of AAA public relations advises people whose car journeys include metropolitan areas to plan the journey around less congested times. If you are a member of AAA you can check traffic patterns online or else you can consult one of the local convention & visitors bureaus. If you do get stuck in traffic, instead of getting frustrated pull off and have a nice meal. If there's a place to take a walk, treat that as part of the journey. Obviously, try to avoid driving the Wednesdays before Thanksgiving and Christmas and during any rush hours, if possible.
The roads will be full of millions of cranky motorists all trying to get home or away at the same time.
11. If possible, gas up the car the weekend before a holiday -- prices should be lower and lines will be shorter.
12. Try not to drive the evening of Thanksgiving, Christmas and the early morning hours of New Years Day, when the roads will presumably be filled with drunk and drowsy drivers. Be hyper-alert and very patient: traffic may be awful, and other drivers may be distracted and inattentive.