Traveling Home for the Holidays: A Survival Guide

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Traveling Home for the Holidays: A Survival Guide
12 December 2015

Give the Gift of Time

When it's time to sit around the tree or light the menorah, the pressure to give fancy gifts can be strong. But experts say it's not worth sacrificing your budget.

“Make hard decisions to give what you can afford," and “Don't give what others think they deserve, or perhaps even what you'd really like to give."

And for the ones you love, your presence at home may be present enough. “Chances are that your family really just wants to spend time with you more than anything.

In lieu of expensive gifts, he recommends helping your parents with tasks around the house, taking care of younger siblings and making time for family by organizing low-cost outings to the zoo or mini-golf course or even just game night at home.

Above all, the key is to avoid going into debt this holiday season. “It's important to enjoy the holidays, take a break and visit family. But it's more important to live in comfort now and in the future than to take a trip you cannot afford.

“Be realistic on how much you have to spend; you'll then be able to do the most with what you have."


10 Tips for Holiday Travel

snowman beach santa hat Planning to visit Grandma's for Thanksgiving or spend Christmas in Rome? Traveling over the holidays can be notoriously busy, expensive and stressful, but the news isn't all bad. There are still deals to be found, provided you shop carefully and plan ahead. Check out our 10 tips for holiday travel and find some joy this holiday season.

1. Avoid peak travel dates.
At Thanksgiving, Wednesday is the critical outbound "avoid" day as a rule. Traveling on Thanksgiving day proper is often a breeze and more affordable; there are often cut-rate airfare deals on Thanksgiving day. If you can fly home any day other than Sunday, you'll likely pay less.

At Christmas and New Year's, the peak travel dates change each year depending on which days the holidays fall. You can generally guess which dates will be the most expensive for travel (consider which travel days would allow you to maximize long weekends without taking too many days off work -- and that's probably when everyone will want to go). If you're not sure, use a search engine that lets you put in flexible travel dates; these will show you which date combinations will give you the best deal.

2. Shop around.
Whether you're using booking sites like Travelocity, bid or auction sites such as Priceline or metasearch sites such as Kayak, comparison shopping has never been easier than it is right now. During peak travel season, casting the net as wide as possible will help you understand all of your options.

For many travelers, price isn't the only or even the most important factor, especially during the holidays. Thoughtful, deliberate use of the "search adjacent days or airports" features found on many websites may also surrender greatly improved fares and travel times.

For more help, see our Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare. Having trouble finding a hotel? Don't miss No Vacancy? No Problem.

3. Know your airports.
Checking alternate airports is a pretty standard tactic, but at this time of year it can really make a difference. At no time can the alternate airport gambit pay off better than during the holiday crush. You can score on almost every front -- parking, rental cars, traffic to and from, nearby hotels -- and save both time and money.

Keep in mind that smaller airports see fewer flights and, typically, fewer delays -- not a minor consideration during the busy holiday travel season.

 Fly Here, Not There: The Best Small Airports in the U.S.

4. Plot connections carefully.
When booking flights, check your search results carefully for sufficient time during layovers, and build in some time for flight delays and weather woes. Particularly during the winter months, peak travel times often bring peak travel delays, and your connection is more likely to be jeopardized. Avoiding really tight connections may save you a sprint through the terminal or a missed flight.

Also, it is best if you can muscle your flight path into position so that connections are in places less likely to experience delays -- specifically, airports in warmer climates. For more advice, see our Winter Travel Tips.

5. Leave early.
During peak travel times, much of the trouble you'll face lies on this side of the security check-in, from traffic jams and full parking lots to absent shuttles and long lines. Rather than striving to "arrive at the airport early," you may want to try to "leave for the airport early" to anticipate all the peripheral delays you may encounter.

 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

6. Pack wisely.

In the past, you may have been able to fit everything into your carry-on without having to check any baggage - a strategy we still recommend. However, the TSA rules about liquids and gels make this a trickier proposition. For the record, you may bring liquids and gels in 3.4-ounce or smaller containers, packed within a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. You're also allowed to bring any liquids (such as coffee or water) or gels purchased after you go through a security checkpoint onto your plane with you. If you want to bring more than the 3.4-ounce amount, you'll have to pack the items in your checked luggage.

For more information, read Airport Security Q&A.

When packing, keep in mind that most airlines are now charging travelers a fee for checking any bags on domestic flights (and even some international ones). Trim your luggage load with  The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time.

7. Use the Web for more than just booking.

smartphone laptop businessmanThe latest self-service developments in online travel can be tremendous time-savers during peak travel times. Whenever possible, print your boarding passes at home, use check-in kiosks or even pull up your boarding pass on your smartphone.

If you buy most of your gifts online, have them shipped directly to your destination. This will cut down on luggage and the risk of them getting lost.

8. Travel early or late in the day.

As a rule, airports are least congested at times when normal human beings would rather be at home or even asleep. Delays are far less likely for morning flights, and airports usually unclog as the afternoon and evening peak passes.

Caveat: Staffing can be spotty for really early flights, so although your flight is highly likely to be ready to leave on time, check-in may take a while, along with other personnel-dependent steps like riding shuttle buses.

 Five Things You Shouldn't Wear on a Plane

9. Consider package deals.

Peak travel periods can be the best time to buy package deals (such as air/hotel or air/hotel/air), even for folks who would never buy one, as the bundled pricing offered by packages can be very competitive. I'm traveling on a package over Thanksgiving, and am almost stunned at the offer; you can barely afford to stay home at these prices.

10. Keep your cool.

Keep your cool. Airline employees have considerable power over your well-being. Unfortunately, some enjoy wielding it against you, and few respond well to anger.

A Few Bonus Tips

Be prepared for more than the usual slowdowns at security. Even though the TSA's liquid and gel rules have been around for many years now, folks who fly very rarely may not be familiar with all the ins and outs -- and the newer full body scanners could catch even frequent travelers off guard.

Gas up the night before you travel; no one leaves enough time for buying gas on the way to the airport.

Investigate your frequent flier options to get better (and better guaranteed) seats.

Have phone numbers for everything: your hotel, your car rental agency, your airline, friends at your destination.

Choose nonstop flights. The worst, most brutal delays occur in connecting airports, where you have no home, friends or family to retreat to.

Don't overpack even checked luggage; overstuffed bags that must be opened for a security check are much harder to repack.

christmas gifts holidayDo not wrap gifts, especially if you intend to carry them on the plane. Even in checked baggage, there is a strong chance they will be unwrapped for inspection by security personnel. Consider gift bags instead of wrapping paper this holiday season -- you can easily remove the items from their bags if required, and you won't have to do a last-minute wrapping job at your destination.

Give your cell phone a full charge, and put your airline's phone number in your contacts so you can call easily as your flight time approaches.

If you're leaving pets at home and you haven't made kennel reservations, do so right away. If Fido is coming along, check out our article on Traveling with Pets.

Put It All Together

Travel during the holidays is the time to lay all your travel savvy on the line. For example, if you:

- purchase a package deal in one click of the mouse
- have your boarding pass sent to your phone
- leave early enough not to sweat the small stuff
- travel light enough not to have to check any bags
- proceed directly to and through security
- arrive at the gate on time and at ease
- and nail your connections ...

... you might actually enjoy traveling this season!