Holiday Travel Tips for Stress-Free Flying

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 15, 2004
Holiday fliers know the trepidation of travel on some of the year's
busiest dates. But with expert advice flying doesn't have to dampen the
seasonal spirit.

"Be prepared and be patient," said Kathy Sudeikis, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). "Prepared means that you anticipate delays, so you've charged the iPod, you have batteries for the GameBoys, your cell phone is not going to die because you're ready for an airport crisis."

"Bring plenty of reading material," she added. "A brand new book is always a good thing."

When young children are traveling, parents need to plan for novelty and variety. "You need to be sure that you're bringing something new for both directions of the flight," Sudeikis said. "It doesn't have to be expensive—maybe a new coloring book and crayon. But you've got to surprise them, and it's good if it's not something that they do all the time."

Sudeikis also suggests that travel is a poor time to halt the holiday feeding frenzy.

"Have some snacks, because if delays get really long, [airports or airlines] can run out of food," she said. "You need to have food for kids. They are even harder to please than adults."

Holiday hosts can also feel the crunch when they are responsible for retrieving out-of-towners at the airport.

"Depending on how far you live from the airport, don't even leave home till you hear from them on the cell phone that they've touched down," Sudeikis advised. "That gives you a good half hour to get there by the time they get everyone off the plane, get their luggage, and make it down the concourse."

Savvy Travelers May Avoid Holiday Delays

Of course, travel delays are best avoided before they happen. Savvy travelers can mitigate problems while making their travel plans.

Nonstop flights are a boon, because connections increase the risk of a delay. Traveling earlier in the day can also help avert holiday disasters. Statistics show that flights scheduled earlier in the day have better on-time performance. If problems do arise, an early flight offers flyers a better chance to rebook on an alternate flight.

Many airlines now allow travelers to check themselves in at home via the Web and arrive with boarding pass in hand—avoiding lines.
Some airlines impose baggage restrictions over the holidays, so knowing relevant limits is important. Gifts are best shipped ahead to your final destination. If they do fly with you, your carefully chosen packages may be opened by a screener—so leave them unwrapped. Collapsible gift bags offer a convenient "on arrival" wrapping option.

If winter sports are part of your holiday plans, place skis, ski poles, and ice skates in checked luggage. Ski boots can travel as carry-on baggage. See the U.S. Transportation Safety Authority's (TSA) full list of "special items."
One key to evading holiday crowds is to travel when others aren't. It's sometimes easier said than done, but peak travel times should be avoided. And those peak times aren't the same everywhere.

"Certain times are better to travel than others, but it really varies by airport," said TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser from the TSA's Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. "We joke that if you've seen one airport you've seen one airport."

The TSA Web site lists historical data for individual airport security checkpoint wait times, so that travelers can choose less hectic travel schedules.

In general, the busiest travel days are those immediately before and after the actual holidays, so it's best to travel at least two days before or after Christmas and New Year's Day.

Avoiding Security Snafus

Knowledge of security procedures can speed the system and ease your delays and frustration. The time to find out is before travel.

"We recognize that there's a role that [the TSA] can play, and that's fully staffing the lanes, having our screeners work overtime, and just putting in that extra effort," Kayser said. "But there's also a role that passengers can play. That's why we recommend that they go to our Web site and look at the prohibited items list and check out our travel tips, so that they can be fully prepared to fly."

Unloaded firearms are allowed only as checked baggage when secured in a locked, hard-sided container. Ammunition or firearm parts are also banned from carry-on baggage, and all such items must be declared to the airline. Sound like common knowledge? Think again.

"In October we had over 2,000 instances of ammunition at the checkpoints and 77 firearms at the checkpoints," Kayser said. "These are serious incidents, and they slow the lines. My number one piece of advice is to make sure that prohibited items aren't in your bags."

Kayser and TSA also offer the following security tips:

• Pack valuables and fragile items, like laptops or jewelry, in your carry-on bag.

• Avoid overstuffing checked luggage, which can be more difficult and time-consuming to search.

• Try to carry fewer metallic items, including keys, coins, phones, et cetera, in your carry-on bag. Remove laptops and video cameras from their cases so they can be placed in a plastic bin for screening.

• Remove your overcoat, as well as your jacket, blazer, and suit coat. Sweaters and sweatshirts are OK if not unusually bulky.

• Consider wearing flip-flops, sandals, or other nonmetallic and easily removable footwear that won't raise suspicions. Johnston & Murphy, Florsheim, Rockport, and other shoemakers market "airport friendly" shoes that are free of metal shanks.

Kayser reports that peak wait times at checkpoints over the Thanksgiving holidays, some of the year's busiest travel days, rarely (only 3 percent of the time) exceeded 12 minutes—despite traveler numbers that exceeded any since September 11, 2001.

But due to weather or other issues, even the most prepared traveler may experience a holiday debacle out of his or her control. That's when they most need a very important travel tool.

"Patience is the other thing that you have to pack," Sudeikis advised. "You can't get there any faster by getting upset."

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