Being home for the holidays is part of the joy of the season. But for many of us, getting there is super-stressful. It’s you -- with gifts, luggage, and kids in tow -- up against flight delays, crowded airports, and wintry roads. Here are 10 tips to help you escape the heartache and headache of holiday travel. We've focused mostly on air travel, but these principles can apply to any way you hit the road.
Set your travel plans as early as possible to get cheaper deals and more flexible schedules. Pick non-stop flights if you can. Early morning ones are less often delayed than later ones. Avoid traveling on the busiest dates -- the day before Thanksgiving and the two days before and after Christmas and New Year’s. Better yet, fly on the actual holidays and you’re likely to face minimal crowds.
Let’s get digital
Before you leave home, download plenty of entertainment to your tablet, e-reader, smartphone, laptop, or portable DVD player. The familiarity of a favorite show or video game fights boredom and stress. If ever there was a time to let your little ones zone out on cartoons for an hour or two, an unexpected delay on the road is it. Be sure to bring earphones that fit them, backup batteries, and chargers.
Allow lots of time
Leave the house an hour earlier than usual to beat delays. Imagine relaxing as you explore the airport or train station, versus hurtling down the terminal with bags in tow -- it's an easy choice. Also, the earlier you’ve checked in, the less likely you are to be bumped off an overbooked flight. Plus you get more time to eat or pick up food for the journey.
Even if you’re checking bags, consider shipping gifts and non-essentials ahead of time. You'll cut down luggage hassle and how much you have to drag around. Plus you can insure and track them better. You can even mail items already packed in a suitcase. Or, buy presents online and toss some gift bags into your carry-on. Allow two to three weeks for shipping. If you must fly with gifts, keep them unwrapped in case security needs to examine your stuff.
Prepare for security
If you're flying, make sure you're organized before entering security. Put your change, keys, belts, phone, and jewelry in your carry-on instead of emptying pockets in line. If you’re traveling with kids, use the family lane if one is available. Make sure your child knows what to expect. Any “lovies” or carry-on toys need to be screened, so be sure they know they’ll have to hand it over. Kids under 12 can keep their shoes on.
Plan for delays
Prepare mentally to be delayed or rerouted. It’ll help you take charge, minimize stress, and figure out Plan B. In case you’re stuck overnight, carry snacks, extra clothes for everyone, and some small toy surprises to whip out as a diversion. Just in case, program your phone with numbers for airlines, rental cars, and friends or family in connecting flight towns.
An empty stomach makes for super-cranky travelers. And it’s easier to beat boredom with some on-board noshing, especially for your pint-sized passengers. Since airlines are increasingly unreliable for keeping your tummy satisfied, stock up on healthy non-sticky snacks. Choose protein or high-fiber foods to keep you feeling fuller, like nuts, dried fruit, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs. Or, pick up your next meal after security before boarding.
Remember: Others are stressed too
Holiday travel is hectic for all involved. Take deep breaths, put a smile on your face, and stay positive. Getting away from everyday schedules and surroundings is especially tough on kids’ stress. So include them in the trip planning and bring favorite small toys, books, and other familiar items. And remember that getting upset with airport personnel doesn’t help as much as calm, kind words and an upbeat attitude.
Being sick while away from home only worsens holiday stress. Winter travel raises the risk of colds and flu. Plan ahead by getting a flu shot or nasal flu vaccine. Wash your hands often and carry antibacterial hand gel to ward off germs. Dress in loose-fitting, tightly woven clothing layers to stay warm.
Conquer the roads
Get an early start to avoid the heaviest traffic. Try to make the drive fun. Involve the kids by singing and playing games. Stop often to stretch your legs, refocus, and give everyone some space. Bring plenty of snacks and water. Before leaving, have your car checked for brakes, battery, fluids, and tire pressure. Take a first-aid kit, flashlight, blankets, flares, jumper cables, and an ice scraper.
American Dietetic Association. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, October 2008;
American Society of Travel Agents: “10 Winter Holiday Travel Trips to Melt Your Worries Away,” “Holiday Travel Tips for Safe Holiday Travel.”
CDC: “Holiday Health and Safety Tips,” “Traveling Safely with Infants and Children.”
Frommer’s: “10 Survival Tips for Holiday Travel,” “10 Ways to Survive Traveling With Kids,” “Baby, Come Fly with Me: Stress-Free Airtime for the New Jet Set,” “Holiday Airport Travel Tips From a High Flyer.”
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