Remember these winter holiday travel tips, especially these days with predicted travel crowds.
As much as most people look forward to seeing their friends and relatives during winter holiday travel, almost no one looks forward to holiday air travel. The combination of full planes, unpredictable fall weather, and more than the usual number of vacation travelers make for a rougher than usual airport experience.
We, as travelers, are going into a rough patch as holiday travelers. First, we will be having Thanksgiving to deal with. Plan on packed planes. After Thanksgiving comes Christmas and then New Year. The entire holiday period will be perilous for anyone with a large family or close connections.
As I have written before, the most helpful tip is probably a sense of humor. Some of the things that go on in airports and on planes are the kinds of stories you couldn’t make up. (I am convinced that television and movie writers use some of these incidents verbatim in their scripts, not to mention late-night comics.)
But on a practical level, there are some things you should do differently this holiday season. Here are five easy ones, which may or may not seem obvious. However, seasoned travelers take these actions for almost every trip. During the winter holiday period, they are more necessary than ever.
If you park at the airport, call the garage you plan to use first. The time to find out that the garage is full is not when you pull up to the ticket machine. (This is, unfortunately, from the voice of experience.) Some private lots take reservations, and in the worst case, if every place is full and you haven’t left home yet, there is still the option of a taxi or maybe a last-minute plea to a friend.
It may be sensible to call ahead anyway. Make sure that your old, trusted long-term parking lot is still open. Check ahead and look for alternatives for long-term and inexpensive parking choices. If your favorite lot is closed, look for others still operating. I know that many lots at hotels provide cheap spots near Dulles Airport outside of DC. At BWI, in Baltimore, there is aggressive competition between parking companies, and private parking lots offer reservations during the holidays.
2. Leave for the airport early — as early as possible
Usually, I don’t worry enough to get to the airport more than the recommended minimum advance time. But holiday rules are different. The airlines, TSA, airport shops, and eateries admit they are understaffed. Lines are longer than usual, and more families are traveling. There is a lot less “give” in the system. If you miss a plane or a flight is delayed so that you will miss a connection, there are far fewer backup options.
3. Accept a middle seat when checking in online.
When no windows or aisles are available, accept a middle seat rather than waiting for a seat assignment at the gate. This hint doesn’t mean you can’t still ask at the gate for something better, but in case of severe overbooking and a lack of volunteers, it’s safer to have a boarding pass if you need to be on the plane. That is especially valuable during the winter holiday travel time this year.
4. Take advantage of online check-in.
If you have a boarding pass, even with checked luggage, you can use the curbside check-in for a fee and avoid the basic lines. Kiosks have generally speeded up this process a bit. During holiday times, this is less true. Infrequent travelers often get confused by the machines, and staff cutbacks mean fewer airline employees can help them. Plus, the myriad upgrade options that some airlines have added to the kiosks have extended the time spent checking in for everyone.
5. Consider packing a lunch if you have time.
On more than a few occasions around the holidays, I have seen lines that rival TSA security lines at food service outlets, and even coffee shops. This means the choice can be to go hungry, take a chance that the overpriced selections (or any options) on the planes will still be available, or risk missing your plane. Besides, even splurging on an expensive deli sandwich or salad in advance will probably be cheaper than airport food anyway.
Finally, despite all the best intentions and planning, you may still end up with the travel day from hell. Remember this — if you are flying somewhere for the holidays, you probably won’t have to worry about cooking.
Janice Hough is a California-based travel agent a travel blogger and a part-time comedy writer. A frequent flier herself, she’s been doing battle with airlines, hotels, and other travel companies for over three decades. Besides writing for Travelers United, Janice has a humor blog at Leftcoastsportsbabe.com (Warning, the political and sports humor therein does not represent the views of anyone but herself.)