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How to avoid December holiday travel woes

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Portland International Airport (Photo: Port of Portland)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on December 20, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, booking strategy, holiday, hotel, Sarah Pascarella, winter.

A few weeks ago, we asked readers to share their Thanksgiving travel horror stories, and planned a "learn from common complaints" story for December holiday travel. But surprise, surprise: We mainly heard positive feedback, as Thanksgiving went off without a hitch this year.

However, seasoned travelers know that's no reason to become complacent, especially for the busy travel days around Christmas and New Year's Eve. Similar-sized crowds, the threat of bad weather, and all those wrapped packages could mean nasty snafus for Yuletide excursions. So, while we're hoping for a Christmas miracle with a repeat of what happened over Thanksgiving, our realistic side compels us to offer strategies for the December holidays—just in case things go wrong.

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Delayed or canceled flights

If a snowstorm—or ice, or hail—blows into town (or your destination city), chances are you'll be spending more time than you bargained for at the airport. If you find yourself faced with a delay or cancellation, here's how to make the best of it.

  • If you find yourself at the back of a long line, grab your cell phone and call the airline's reservations center directly. Explain the situation and ask to be placed on the next available flight. You may get through to a customer service rep faster than the line is moving—and get rebooked without having to spend any additional time in the queue. Or, if you're willing to pay, call another airline, which might have available seats.
  • Request as many consolation prizes as the carrier will be able to give. This can range from overnight accommodations (if you get stuck en route), a distressed-traveler rate, meal vouchers, or credits toward future flights. Typically, you'll be able to get more if the delay or cancellation is the carrier's fault (e.g.: mechanical failure, understaffed flight, etc.), rather than from an uncontrollable situation such as weather.
  • Go with the flow. If you're delayed, chances are everyone around you is, too. Losing your temper and making unreasonable demands won't improve the weather or the customer service reps' moods. Being cordial and flexible can go a long way toward making the best of a difficult situation.

Holdups at security

It's become one of the most stressful parts of going to the airport: the inevitable de-belting, shoe-removing, toiletry-bagging screening at security checkpoints. By being prepared, however, you can make the process go smoothly.

  • For carry-on bags, remember the 3-1-1 rule: All liquids must be in a container that holds three ounces or less, and placed in a one-quart-sized clear zip-top plastic bag, with one bag per passenger. If you forget to pack your toiletries this way, you can typically find TSA-approved bags and toiletries at the airport newsstands or convenience stores. If you want to bring larger-sized toiletries, plan on checking your bag.
  • Don't bring wrapped packages: You're asking for trouble if you arrive at the airport with your gifts wrapped and ready to go. Instead, plan on wrapping your presents once you arrive, or better yet, have them shipped directly to your destination. A few years back, I flew to Pennsylvania for Christmas. I did most of my shopping online, and had all my gifts shipped right to my parents' home. When I arrived, they were all there and ready to be wrapped, saving me all the airport-related hassles.
  • Dress for security: Wearing slip-on shoes, no belt, and little to no metallic jewelry can ease your way through the screening process. Rather than fumbling with laces, a belt buckle, or jewelry clasps, you can quickly remove your shoes, store your items on the conveyor belt, and head through.

Lost luggage

So, you've made it through security, suffered through your flight in coach, and have finally arrived ... but your bags haven't. As soon as you realize your luggage didn't make the trip, head to your airline's baggage services desk to file a claim.

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