Remember these winter holiday travel tips, especially these days with limited service and 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. After almost 18 months of families being separated, plan on planes being packed. After Thanksgiving comes Christmas and then New Year. The entire holiday period will be perilous for anyone who has a large family or close connections.
The most helpful tip, as I have written before, 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. (In fact, 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 week. 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.
This year, full parking lots may not be a fear, as the coronavirus is still limiting traffic to airports. However, if you park at the airport, call the garage you are planning 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 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. Parking lots have had the same personnel problems faced by airports and airlines over the past 18 months. Check ahead and look for alternatives for long-term and inexpensive parking choices. If your favorite lot is closed, look for others that are 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. Normally, 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 all admit that they are understaffed. Lines are longer than usual and there are more families 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 there are no windows or aisles 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 serious overbooking and a lack of volunteers, if you really need to be on the plane, it’s safer to have a boarding pass. 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 are available to 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.
This might sound trivial, but on more than a few occasions around the holidays, I have seen lines that rival TSA security lines at foodservice outlets, even coffee shops. Airport concessions are still operating at around 60 percent during winter holiday travel time. 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, at least 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.)