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How to avoid December holiday travel woes

A few weeks ago, we asked readers to share their [% 2462614 | | 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.

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 [% 2468088 | | 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 [% 2438811 | | 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 [% 2435492 | | 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 [% 1635379 | | 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.

  • In many cases, your bags simply got stuck at your departure city or were put on a different flight. Most airlines attempt to get your bag back to you within 24 hours.
  • Some airlines will give you a free toiletries kit, if you request it. Others, such as Northwest, United, and US Airways, may provide a per-diem stipend to cover basic expenses until your luggage is returned.
  • If your luggage is lost, you can [% 2457517 | | get some money back %]: for domestic checked bags, up to $2,800 per passenger; for international checked bags, approximately $600. Be prepared to deal with a lot of paperwork. Also, if you purchased your air ticket with American Express, MasterCard, or Visa, send an inquiry to your credit card company—sometimes they offer baggage insurance at no additional cost. Note that this should only be a backup plan, however, as your card company will request that you attempt to settle the issue with the airline first.

Rude customer service

Let’s face it—during the holidays, even the cheeriest of customer service clerks may turn into a Grinch. Long lines, endless hours on one’s feet, and irritable patrons all combine (on a daily basis) for a job full of misery. As such, you may encounter something other than a smile at the check-in desk this holiday season.

Keeping a cool head, being proactively polite, and dealing with a problematic situation immediately and thoroughly may be your best defense. If these tactics don’t work and you feel you’re being slighted, you can always ask to speak to a manager or supervisor. Take down names, notes of all pertinent information (flight numbers, reroutings, etc.), and keep records of all conversations. If the customer-service representative or manager still doesn’t offer satisfactory service, consider filing a [% 2371963 | | complaint %].

Before you go to the airport, consult our handy list of [% 2479018 | | airline customer service numbers %]. It may be a good idea to jot down your carrier’s number (as well as other airlines’) in case you are delayed or canceled, need to make alternate arrangements, or want to [% 2438846 | | report a grievance %].

Horrible traffic jams

I recently made the mistake of traveling from my home city of Boston to New York on the Friday night of a holiday weekend. The trip, which typically spans four to five hours, took a whopping eight hours, beleaguered by crawling traffic, road construction, and bad weather. If you know you’re going to be traveling a highly congested route, particularly over the holidays, take the following steps to ensure a smoother trip:

  • Take advantage of off-peak times: In the past, I’ve done the Boston to New York route early on a Saturday morning, and gotten in without a hitch. A friend traveled to Connecticut (with its cities known for standstill traffic on a normal day) on the day before Thanksgiving, but didn’t leave until 10 p.m. And while she got in late, she hit virtually no traffic.
  • Use public transportation: If you can leave your car behind, it may make your trip easier. Consider traveling by train or commuter rail, if possible.
  • Bring snacks and entertainment: If you’re [% 2410158 | | traveling with kids %], you already know to pack the essentials. But a few extra splurges could go a long way when you’re going a long way—consider purchasing a personal DVD player so the kids can while the hours away with their favorite movies; travel games; and a few special-occasion snacks. With such entertaining diversions, you may even get the kids looking forward to the next road trip.

Do you have a foolproof holiday travel strategy that avoids headaches, saves money, or makes the most of your too-brief vacation time? We want to hear it! If you have a great holiday travel tip you’d like to share, send it to Happy holidays to all!

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