Each year the travel pundits trot out their favorite holiday travel tips. While these are always helpful, they’re nonetheless a bit repetitive as well. I’ve written a few of these myself over the years, but this year I hope to cover some new ground with the following five holiday tips you probably haven’t heard before.
1. Keep your windshield clean.
Of parking tickets, that is. I read recently that more parking tickets are written on the day after Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year. It may look like a holiday and feel like a holiday, but it’s not a holiday — and regular parking rules apply.
2. Get out of the driver’s seat.
During the holidays, roads are busy and sometimes icy, people are driving under the influence, parking lots are overwhelmed, and overall the trip to and from the terminal can look like amateur hour in the extreme. Road warriors may want to remove themselves from the driver’s seat entirely.
Depending on your location, public transportation may or may not be a good option, particularly if you are lugging gifts, winter gear, kids, etc. Look into local shuttle services, which can be very affordable; my local airport shuttle is $30 per person for each trip to the closest airport. When traveling alone, I can make that back in five or six days of long-term airport parking.
For a family of four it would be $120 each way, which isn’t peanuts, no question. It turns out that if I am traveling with my family, it will cost me about the same to have a “limo” service — $85 plus taxes, tip and tolls for a total of $125 each way. That’s $250 total; compared to something like $120 for long-term parking, tolls and gas for my own car, a limo is expensive.
If you consider the hassle factor, however, it might be worth it. You won’t have to stand waiting in the snow at a long-term parking lot bus shelter, and then drag your bags, your kids and yourself onto a shuttle bus that stops at every shelter and terminal, throwing bags onto the floor with every stop and lurching turn — and you won’t have to do it all again when you get home. Instead, you get picked up at your house and dropped off in front of your check-in counter, you’ll have someone help with your bags, and you’ll receive the same treatment on your return. If there is ever a time to factor in the “cost” of these issues, the peak holiday travel season is it.
Before you travel, inquire whether your hotel can offer transportation to and from the airport — it may be very easy and perhaps even free.
3. Upgrade your way around long lines.
You would think it a waste of time to check for upgrades for holiday travel; given how late I usually book and how many other people are trying to do the same, the odds are stacked against success. It’s worth the effort, however, as preferred check-in and priority access to security lines become even more useful and valuable during peak travel times.
Unfortunately, figuring out upgrade eligibility on your own (particularly online) can be brutal, especially if your holiday travel plans are flexible; upgrades may not be available on the flight you select, but may well be on the next flight out, or the next morning, or perhaps the night before, and you would never know. If you cannot find any upgradeable flights on your own, I suggest using a good travel agent. They understand and can see all of the fare classes and exceptions, and might well find something you would never find on your own, or even if you called the airline rewards desk directly.
4. Use a travel agent as an emergency contact.
Speaking of travel agents, if you do decide to work with a travel agent, they may be able to bail you out if you get into a jam. “We cannot always promise we can fix any and every problem, but sometimes we can help,” says Rekha Arapurakal of Personal Travel in central New Jersey.
Examples may include rerouting in the face of incoming weather, booking affordable hotel rooms if you’re stranded at an airport and updating any transportation arrangements that may be affected — all things you may not be able to do while standing in line at an airport gate desk. Note that few travel agents offer around-the-clock service, but during business hours (and usually a bit beyond), they can be of great assistance.
5. Follow the crowds, then outsmart them.
If you’re like me, your winter/holiday trip may be your only true non-working vacation of the year — which makes it likely you will visit the most popular destinations at one of the busiest times of the year. Where I once avoided crowds like I would a swarm of greenheads, now I am less bugged by them. If you have a strategy in place before you get there, you can successfully navigate even the most crowded destinations.
For example, if you are going to a popular ski destination, set up your transportation to the slopes, pre-arrange any equipment rentals, and schedule and book lessons from home, long before you pack for the trip. When you arrive, everything will be more or less in place for you to hit the slopes, no small benefit at a crowded ski resort. If you are going to a beach town, have your hotel look into bicycle and surfboard rentals, scuba lesson bookings, and arrangements for any other activities you might wish to pursue.
At a theme park, you might call ahead to ask at what time the park starts to get crowded, and get ahead of the crowds by just enough to have the place almost to yourself. Or you can improvise — pick what seems like the “normal” time for most activities, and bump everything 15 to 30 minutes earlier.
I did this with my family at Sea World this past summer, and we were always about 20 minutes ahead of everyone. At each attraction we walked in almost alone, and walked out to see long lines of people who had just poured off their bus en masse. We arrived a few minutes before 10 a.m. instead of the more popular 10:30 a.m.; we got lunch at 11:45 a.m. instead of 12:15 p.m.; we left at 3 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m. If you do get a late start at a theme park, sprint to the far reaches of the park and then work your way back toward the entrance, rather than walking in and among the crowds all day.