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It's that time of year again, when we hear how grim the upcoming holiday travel season will be. Yes, planes, trains and roads will be crowded, especially now that the economy is perking up. And there's always the chance that snowstorms will gum up the works. But your holiday travel fate is partly in your own hands. Here are 10 tips — some new, some time-tested — for headache-free traveling during this busy season.
1. Don't Travel on Peak Days
There's no getting around it. Peak travel days are the worst! You've heard it before, but it remains true that traveling the day before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after — whether by air, rail or road — greatly increases your chance of travel woes. Consider adjusting your dates by even a day.
2. Leave Lots of Extra Time
Depart from home far earlier in the day than you would at any other time of year, whether you're starting a road trip or heading to an airport or bus or railway station. Wouldn't you rather not be panicked if you run into traffic congestion, crowded public transit or long security lines? Relax and read or listen to music while you wait for your plane or train; take a restful pit stop if you're driving.
3. Rethink the Airport Experience
An airport is no longer just a transit hub to be rushed through. Many terminals are amenity-filled malls, some with terrific art exhibitions, shops, restaurants and even spas and yoga rooms. Arriving three hours before a flight is a lot more pleasant when you know you can browse, savor a glass of wine, exercise or get a massage.
4. Reserve Airport Parking
Airport parking often fills up during the holidays. But at many lots — especially private ones a short shuttle ride from the terminal — you can prebook, sparing yourself a mad scramble to stash the car before your flight takes off.
5. Avoid Airline Ticket Counters
There is no need to wait in line if you print out boarding passes at home, pull them up on your smartphone or get them at an airport kiosk. If you have an e-ticket, carry a printout of your itinerary. And if you're checking bags, use the skycaps at curbside (remember to tip them generously).
6. Pack Light for Air Travel
Take only a carry-on bag, even if it means leaving an outfit or two at home. That sacrifice will save you time on both ends of the trip, and if your flight is canceled it simplifies scoring a seat on another flight.
7. Have a Backup Plan
You can't predict travel snafus, but you can make like a Boy Scout and be prepared for anything. If you're driving, know alternative routes so you can adjust if traffic is bad. If you're flying, know the alternative flights and connecting cities to your destination in case of delays or cancellations.
8. Bring Provisions
Take snacks, games, books, magazines, portable music or DVD players and other diversions to pass the time if your flight is delayed or you're stuck in traffic. (This is vital, of course, if you're traveling with kids.)
9. Turn Your Phone Into a Travel Tool
Sign up with your airline to receive flight status updates on your phone, or load your smartphone with mobile travel alert apps from Amtrak or state highway authorities. Before leaving home, make sure your phone is fully charged and holds all the numbers you could possibly need, including family, friends, hotel, airline, rental car agency and credit card companies.
10. Think Twice About Holiday Gifts
If you'll be traveling by air, ship presents in advance or shop online and have them delivered to your destination. If you do take gifts along, make them small and packable, and don't wrap them beforehand: Even if they're in checked luggage, security personnel may need to open them for inspection.
Christopher Hall writes about travel, food and architecture.