How to Survive Holiday Travel
So you're flying home for the holidays: our condolences. But wait, there's hope for you yet! We'll show you how to smartly navigate the messiest airports and most traffic-clogged roads. With our help, you'll make it to Grandma's in one piece, with your health, waistline, wallet and sanity intact.
AT THE AIRPORT
Pick the right day. Fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays for better prices and less-crowded planes.
Pick the right time. Take the first flight of the morning. Flight delays pile up. A storm in Chicago can affect travel in L.A.
Get a seat. Secure a seat assignment in advance. This will save you from being the one bumped when the flight is overbooked. The least desirable seats are in the back of the plane.
Fly direct. Schedule nonstop even if you have to drive hours to the airport. If you must stop, make sure your layover is two hours or longer.
Get help. When in doubt, try a travel agent. You'll pay a fee (as low as $25) to book the ticket, but if something goes wrong, you can call your agent for help.
Flight delay? Tweet #boarding with your airport code using your laptop or cell, and the service will respond with a list of fellow Twitter users who have flights leaving from the same spot around that time. Chances are good you can find a pal to hit the terminal bar with.
Make the Most of Your Miles
Use the new "AwardPlanner" tool at mileagemanager.com ($15 annual membership). If seats aren't available, it continually contacts the airline on your behalf.
Try calling. If you can't find seats online, a reservation agent might help -- for a few extra dollars.
Look at farecompare.com and flyspy.com. When fares go down, award-seat availability generally goes up.
Keep checking. Seats continually pop up, often at the last minute.
Think of points as part of your holiday budget. If you're not using them for travel, consider cashing them in for gift cards at points.com.
ON THE ROAD
A new generation offers discount fares and express service. Your cheat sheet:
Megabus: This line operates double-deckers in cities in the Midwest and Northeast. Fares start at $1, and there's free Wi-Fi and outlets for laptops and cell phones.
BoltBus: You'll get fares from $1, Wi-Fi and plug-ins, extra legroom and reserved seating. Rides connect Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Fung Wah Bus: The no-frills "Chinatown bus" offers $15 one-way New York-to-Boston fares, and $30 fares between New York and Providence, Rhode Island.
Car rental rates are spiking; here, how to be savvier about bookings.
Check vroomvroomvroom.com, which compares fares from competing agencies.
Consider renting in town where the taxes are generally lower than at the airport.
Look at the weekly rate if you're booking for five or six days.
Keep checking rates. If the price comes down, you can rebook.
Buy only the insurance you need. Most people are covered by their personal car insurance or their credit card.
Fuel up yourself instead of prepaying for a tank of gas, which you may not use up.
Fares have dropped thanks to low-cost bus service. Just like the airlines, Amtrak gives out reward points to travelers who sign up for its loyalty program. Doing so gets you special offers and discounts.
Taking the train can be the romantic route home -- just don't expect it to be the quickest. But at this time of year, due to holiday traffic, some commuter routes (Chicago to Milwaukee, Chicago to St. Louis, New York to Washington, D.C., and Boston to New York) can take less time than driving.
SURVIVING WITH MONEY TO SPARE
Break your routine, not the bank.
Consider splurging on a day pass at an airport lounge. The roughly $50 fee gets you snacks and Wi-Fi, which you'll avoid paying for à la carte.
Book hotel and airfare together. Travelocity.com found that travelers saved, on average, $315 per trip. Hotels are not keen to lower stand-alone rates, but will lower them for a package when customers can't see the hotel price.
Start your trip on a Sunday night. Most business travelers haven't checked in yet and leisure travelers have left, so rates are generally lower.
SURVIVING WITH YOUR HEALTH
Stay strong with tips from family physician Linda Stogner and Dr. Thomas Bettes of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Before you leave: Pack snacks to avoid bad moods and blood sugar drops. Buy over-the-counter meds for the treatment of mild cold symptoms. Anyone with chronic medical issues should carry a list of their medicines, recent lab work and doctor's contact info.
On the go: Wash or sanitize your hands as often as possible. On long flights and car trips, stand and walk around every few hours. It's advice that bears repeating: Drink plenty of fluids.
SURVIVING WITH YOUR WAISTLINE
Fight holiday weight gain with tips from Joan Salge Blake, Boston University nutrition professor:
Celebrate the lack of food served on airplanes. You can bring or buy food that's much healthier than airline slop.
Remember to drink eight glasses of water every day, which will keep you hydrated and full.
Have a healthful meal in a sit-down restaurant at the airport. You have to be there two hours early anyway.
Make dates to see old friends -- that don't involve eating. Instead, ice-skate. Or gossip! That's good, and good for you.
SURVIVING WITH YOUR SANITY
Psychologists Ronald Nathan and Pauline Wallin (Taming Your Inner Brat) reveal how to stay calm in transit. (We've added further suggestions, in parentheses.)
Recognize that travel hassles are temporary. Ask yourself: Will this make a difference in a day or even an hour? (If that doesn't work, try picturing the flight staff naked.)
Assume you have a certain amount of energy per day -- let's say, one dollar's worth. When frustrated, consider, "Do I want to spend 50 cents of my dollar on this?" (Or maybe use that dollar to buy some Twizzlers.)
Anticipate and accept adversity. If you're stuck at the airport, aim to make three new friends. Help the mother of a crying baby. Write some New Year's cards. ("I wish you a year free of chatty strangers, screaming babies and crowded airports." On second thought -- save the cards for another time.)
Take a mental journey. Look at a blank wall and imagine a screen on which to project a fantasy reel of a beautiful island. (Just don't make it that island on Lost. Crazy things happen there.)