6 Essential Tips to Make Holiday Travel Bearable

Josh Hallett/Flickr

Josh Hallett/Flickr

Last year, AAA estimated that 48.7 million Americans would travel 50 miles or more from home for Thanksgiving, an uptick from 2015, thanks to rises in consumer spending and low gas prices. It's too early to tell if holiday travel in 2017 will have the same blockbuster travel numbers, but for the many millions of Americans who will visit family members or take a vacation for the winter holidays, it's important to remember that a higher concentration of travelers can mean a higher probability of something going wrong. It's never too early to plan, so we came up with six essential tips to make holiday travel bearable in 2017. Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do about your uncle's political arguments at the dinner table. 

1. Avoid the busiest days.

If you have any flexibility in your travel plans, the holidays are the time to be adaptable. A good rule of thumb is to look at on which day the holiday falls and then think about which day would maximize vacation time without using vacation days -- these are generally the most busy and expensive times since this is when everyone wants to travel. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the weekend(s) before Christmas and Hanukah are notoriously the busiest and most expensive times to travel (usually, depending on when the holidays fall). Avoid these days and avoid extra stress. 

2. Sign up for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck.

Though it might be too late for this holiday season (wait times vary by airport), signing up for TSA Global Entry and PreCheck can save you hours of time in the security line. The only qualification required is being a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, then filling out online paperwork and paying about $100 before going to the airport for a brief interview and fingerprinting. It's a lot of tedious work up front, but the effort will pay off when you breeze through security with your shoes on and your laptop in your bag. Security lines are the most frustrating during the holiday travel season, since the airports are filled with passengers who don't fly regularly and maybe haven't quite mastered the three ounces of liquids rule. 

Read more about the TSA PreCheck application process here.

3. Get on the first flight.

Almost no one likes getting up early, but booking the first flight of the day is the way to go. Flights scheduled to take off by mid-morning are more likely to depart and arrive on time than those scheduled for later in the day. Generally, passengers are most likely to get to their destination on flights that leave by 7 a.m. Early flights are also best in the event of weather delays. If an ice storm pushes back your flight, you'll have all day to work on getting rescheduled or rerouted and will be less likely to get stuck at the airport (or your parents' house) overnight. 

4. Pack gifts smarter.

At this point, not checking a bag has become a mantra from travel experts. Don't check a bag. By packing only a carry-on bag, you can you arrive at the airport later (checked bags need to be turned in at least an hour before departure at many airports) and you can skip the oftentimes frustrating luggage carousel at the arrival airport. Just be sure not to place any wrapped gifts in your carry-on bag, as TSA agents might have to unwrap them if the package looks suspicious. The smartest option is to send wrapped gifts ahead of time in the mail -- or just give gift cards (we're kidding...sort of). 

5. Buy travel insurance.

It's a cruel twist of fate that the winter holidays in (most of) the United States mean some of the worst and most unpredictable weather. Snow, blizzards, sleet, and ice can cancel a flight in minutes and make roads impassable within just a few hours. Travel insurance can seem like an unnecessary expense, but Trip Interruption Insurance will get your money back for a missed flight, cruise, or hotel stay. Peace of mind is priceless during the stressful holidays. And if you end up unexpectedly snug in your own bed instead of sleeping on your sister's pull-out sofa, both your wallet and your back will thank you. 

For more information on choosing travel insurance, check out: How To: Pick the Right Trip Insurance.

6. Bring a distraction.

No matter how far in advance you plan and how prepared you are to travel during the holidays, you're probably going to hit at least a small rough patch. Be as prepared as possible by charging your devices ahead of time, pre-downloading driving directions and maps, and storing airline and hotel contact information in your phone. If something unpredictable happens, the best thing you can do is breathe through it and distract yourself with something you enjoy. Noise cancelling headphones, streaming movie services, yoga stretches, or a great book can bring peace and tranquility to even the most stressful travel situations. As far as dealing with your uncle's politics at the dinner table, all we can do is wish you luck. 

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