Holiday travel stress has been immortalized in motion pictures such as “Plains, Trains and Automobiles” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” However, a holiday trip doesn’t have to be so stressful if you know how to plan and make some savvy moves along the way. Here is some wise advice from expert travelers on how to save money and keep your sanity during the busiest travel time of the year.
Some Travel Statistics to Keep in Mind
Not surprisingly, Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year’s are among the busiest long-distance travel periods of the year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). During the six-day Thanksgiving travel period, the number of long-distance trips increases from the average by 54 percent. The BTS defines long-distance as to and from a destination 50 miles or more away.
Over the period between Christmas and New Year’s, long-distance travel trips increase by 23 percent over the average. And while the media focuses their attention on crowded airports and flight delays, most Americans — about 91 percent — travel by car or other personal vehicle to their holiday destination.
The Orbitz Insider Index, which is based on travel website Orbitz.com’s bookings in 2010, found that Christmas week — December 19 through 25 — was the busiest travel week of the year. While Thanksgiving Week — November 21 through 27 — did not make the top 5 list, November 24, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, was the single-busiest travel day of the year.
The takeaway from these statistics is: If possible, do not travel on the busiest travel days of the year.
Tips for a Safe and Enjoyable Road Trip
Nothing can add stress to a road trip like an unexpected mechanical problem. If you do plan on driving long-distance this holiday, make sure your vehicle is in safe working order. Have the car battery, fluid levels, lights, windshield wipers, brakes, belts and hoses checked by a certified mechanic. Regardless of age, have the tires balanced and alignment checked. Also have the oil changed and fluids topped off, including coolant, antifreeze, radiator, transmission and wiper fluid, and replace the air filter.
Also pack smart for winter driving. A roadside emergency kit should include a spare set of keys, hidden in a magnetic spare key hider somewhere on the vehicle. It should also include a blanket, flashlight with fresh batteries, and tire gauge to check tire pressure throughout the trip. Keep extra food and water in case of an emergency in the trunk, and check your spare tire and jack. Obviously, fill the gas tank upon leaving.
If you don’t already, sign up for AAA or other roadside assistance policy. Consider buying a GPS system. They not only make finding your destination easier, a good GPS can help you find restaurants and points of interest along the way.
Fly Smart, Before and After You Book
When it comes to flying, your overall experience begins even before you step on the plane. The questions you ask prior to making a reservation and the preparations you make before you board will greatly influence how easy and enjoyable your flight will be.
Use websites such as Orbitz.com, Kayak.com, WhichBudget.com and LastMinute.com, FareCompare.com, Priceline.com and Yapta.com to search and compare the best airfares and times. Try not to fly on peak holiday travel days (listed above), or at the busiest business commuter times: Monday mornings, Friday evenings and Sundays. Instead, fly on the least crowded days: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Also book as early as possible in the morning, so if a flight is delayed or cancelled, you’ll have a better chance of getting on another flight. If you’re traveling out of the country, make sure you understand the country’s passport requirements and have paperwork in order ahead of time.
Once your flight is booked, focus on packing for a stress-free comfortable flight. If possible, pack with a carry-on roller bag only — it will save you the hefty baggage fee and get you on the plane and out of the airport faster. If you’re going to have to check luggage, pay your baggage fee ahead of time online, it’s usually a bit cheaper. Also weigh your baggage ahead of time and make sure it is under 50 pounds to avoid having to pay an additional fee.
Pack a carry-on bag with your favorite snacks, so if you get hungry, you’re not at the mercy of the airline’s snack schedule. Remember, you can’t bring water through the security check, so buy a bottle once you get to your flight’s gate. Bring wet naps and hand sanitizer, as airplanes and airports are full of germs. If you wear contact lenses, bring a spare pair, along with your glasses. Also pack some books and magazines and a portable music player — they help make the time pass quicker.
The night before or day of the flight, print out your boarding pass online ahead of time. Make sure you’re seat assignment is indicated on the airline’s check-in page. Another holiday travel tip: ship gifts ahead of time so you don’t have to deal with carrying and checking them on the plane. If you do plan on bringing them in your luggage or carry-on, don’t wrap them.