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Tips for Navigating Busy Travel Seasons

Whether going by car, plane or train, follow our advice for a smoother trip

cars stuck in bumper to bumper traffic

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There's little that can make traveling more stressful than facing long lines at the airport or congestion on the road. Although you can't do much to avoid crowds these days, you can make the busiest travel times bearable.

A few general tips:

  • Leave part of your day unplanned, says Jeff Guaracino, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia: The best part of a trip comes from spontaneous detours off the beaten path.
  • Be kind and calm: So what if someone's carry-on bag ends up taking up too much room in the overhead compartment? Don't let that person ruin your day, says Guaracino. Try to practice mindfulness in the midst of the chaos.
  • Don't just stay; visit. Spend quality time with loved ones and slow down for people you meet along the way.
  • Have a plan B: With the prospect of weather delays, cancellations and other mishaps, keep an alternative route in mind so you don't get too stressed if plan A doesn't work out.

If you're going by car:

  • On a busy travel day, the best time to leave is typically early morning or just after the morning commute, says AAA.
  • Prepare for the weather based on the season. In winter, for instance, pack an emergency kit containing items like a cellphone charger, a snow shovel, a flashlight, jumper cables, nonperishable snacks, clothing and water.
  • Before hitting the road, make sure your vehicle is road trip ready. Take it to a trusted facility to check the battery and tires and perform any needed maintenance. Some of the top reasons people call AAA are dead batteries, lockouts and flat tires.
  • Get plenty of rest and schedule breaks every two hours or 100 miles to remain alert.
  • Hands-free and in-vehicle forms of technology can distract drivers even if their eyes are on the road. Designate a passenger to serve as navigator and text messenger.
  • Older adults who feel discomfort while driving should adjust their driving patterns to avoid driving at night, on freeways, in heavy traffic or in unfamiliar areas. In order to extend mobility and reduce risk on the road, AAA recommends consulting a health care professional when feelings of driving discomfort arise.
  • Leave a safe following distance of at least three seconds from the vehicle ahead; add more if driving conditions are poor.
  • Do not offend or cause another driver to change speed or direction.
  • Don't take others’ poor decisions on the road personally: Remind yourself that the driver may be having a bad day (maybe thanks to the crowded roads).
  • If a situation escalates, avoid eye contact, don't make gestures, maintain space and contact 911 if needed.

To help you plan your next big trip, get AARP’s twice-monthly Travel newsletter.

If you're going by train:

You still might have a crowd: In the last fiscal year (through Sept. 30), Amtrak set a company record by providing 32.5 million customer trips within its national network. It offers several suggestions on how be a smart traveler during busy times of year:

  • Arrive at least 30 minutes before your train is scheduled to depart.
  • Check in early to arrange for pre-boarding if you need extra time or assistance.
  • Make reservations and purchase your ticket before your date of departure. If you make your reservation online you will receive an email containing your eTicket. If you lose it, it can be reprinted or displayed on a smartphone.
  • Check video monitors and train information boards to determine the departure gate of your train.
  • Listen carefully for boarding announcements.
  • Look out for Amtrak ambassadors and volunteers who are present at larger stations to assist with travel questions.
Group of people standing In queue at boarding gate

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If you are going by plane:

  • The busiest travel times, depending on the airport, are from noon to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to midnight. The morning is often the best time to fly, according to Johnny Quach, an executive at AirHelp.
  • Check in online 24 hours before your flight.
  • Check your flight status before you leave for the airport to avoid a surprise delay or cancellation.
  • Leave extra time to get to the airport in case you hit traffic on the way. Consider putting your luggage in the car the night before to save precious time, especially if you have an early flight.
  • If you are traveling internationally, exchange some currency ahead of time to avoid lines at ATMs and exchange kiosks when you first arrive.
  • Travel lighter than usual; you will get through the line faster and won't be weighed down by extra luggage. If you can avoid checking a bag, you'll avoid congestion at baggage claim. Add some flair to your luggage to make it easy to identify.
  • Review Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines. Remember the 3-1-1 liquid rule: Liquids, gels and aerosols must be stored in 3.4-ounce containers or less and fit in a quart size clear plastic zip-top bag, one per passenger. And pack your liquids in the front pocket on your carry-on for accessibility.
  • Consider enrolling in TSA PreCheck, which offers an expedited security screening and doesn't require passengers to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or light jackets.
  • If you are required to take your shoes off, wear slip-ons. And wear a pullover jacket or sweater instead of a zip-up jacket, which TSA would probably ask you to remove.
  • Overbooking is more common than some travelers think. When this occurs, giving up your seat on a U.S. carrier can get you as much as $1,350 in compensation, depending on the length of the delay and ticket fare, according to AirHelp.

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