1. Don't go on bad dates.
The notoriously busy Thanksgiving weekend has the same peak travel days each year: the Wednesday before and the Sunday after. The farther you can get from these days, the better, in terms of lower fares and smaller crowds -- and traveling on Thanksgiving day proper almost always ensures a quiet, smooth trip.
This year, Christmas and New Year's fall on Tuesdays, meaning that the weekend before Christmas will likely be a busy one for travelers, as will the day after New Year's. (And you can bet that the airlines will tack on surcharges accordingly.)
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For your convenience, here are this year's peak travel dates:
2. Don't go crazy with carry-on baggage.
Since the day the term "overhead bin" was coined, holiday travelers have tried to bring as much stuff as possible into airplane cabins -- and things have only gotten worse since the airlines instituted almost punitive checked baggage fees. And you can't blame folks, as the $25 - $50 fees just to check a bag add up quickly on a roundtrip flight, especially for a family.
At this time of year, however, with more people in the air, and more stuff under their arms thanks to all the holiday gift-giving, you're more likely than ever to be penalized for oversized bags or forced to gate check your carry-on.
This isn't to say things are going to be fair; they're not. Some people will get on the plane with half their earthly belongings, and some will be told they need to gate check their extra Pillow Pet.
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3. Don't travel too hung over, and definitely not drunk.
Every January, I hear at least one story of a passenger who woke up face down in the aisle, or who passed out and needed to be crowbarred out of an aircraft loo, or who merely left most of the contents of his insides on the plane one way or another. A formidable hangover is already miserable enough; you don't need to live through it on an airplane, where privacy, comfort, fresh air, and easy and quick access to a place to be alone with your hangover are basically non-existent.
Think about it -- you're in a middle seat, badly hung over, and the seatbelt sign is on, the plane is pitching around, the person in the aisle seat has eyeshades and headphones on, and the bathroom is occupied, likely with other hung-over people who are not coming out any time soon. Then the plane lands, and there is a wait for a gate, and the air-conditioning is turned off. You have a real problem, and it's not going away until you get fully up the gangway. That can be a long, lonely and miserable experience -- if you can remember it.
As for flying when significantly drunk, tolerance for even slightly inebriated behavior in the air and at the airport has plummeted the past few years. Don't make the news by getting Tasered, injured in airport jail cells, denied boarding or escorted from the plane by police. Talk about a holiday from hell.
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4. Don't trust airport parking lots to be empty or easy to navigate.
At peak travel times, airport parking lots can fill up quickly, and you will lose time driving around looking for the few open spots, or driving to alternate lots, or going back and forth trying to figure out where you can actually park without dropping a half-day's pay for the privilege. Additionally, staffing is usually down a bit for the holidays, so there seem to be fewer buses, fewer open pay lanes on the way out and fewer people to ask for directions to alternate parking.
And in the case of a winter storm during your travels, moving around the airport gets even more difficult, as snow removal vehicles dominate the traffic lanes, shuttle buses have to navigate around snow banks, parking spots disappear as they are filled by snow piles from plowing trucks, and your car is piled high with snow and ice that you have to clear and scrape off with your credit card, as you hadn't yet put an ice scraper in the car.
To keep yourself out of trouble, check airport Web sites (although not that many offer real-time parking information just yet), allow extra time and look into off-airport lots or even a sleep and fly option.
5. Don't wait too long to book.
There was a time that risking a last-minute holiday booking was a fair bet. With more planes in the air, there were more empty seats; before online bookings, some hotels would inevitably fail to sell out; and rental car companies had not downsized their fleets, so you could always get a car. Among my more travel-savvy friends, stories of last-minute trips booked at rock-bottom prices were common.
All that has changed now, and it is more common to hear about travelers who decided they just couldn't afford to take a trip than about folks who found a trip so cheap they couldn't afford not to take it.
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6. Don't assume things will go to plan.
Traveling during the peak holiday season, particularly in regions where winter weather can be an issue, may be as unpredictable as anything you will do all year. And I don't mean only Detroit, Minneapolis or other northern cities; when a rare snowstorm hits southern cities like Atlanta or Houston, the situation is almost always worse, as they are neither really trained nor equipped to deal with it. (For help coping with snowy weather on the roads and at the airport, see Winter Travel Tips.)
Additionally, your fellow travelers are in larger groups, with more stuff and less experience than at any other time of the year, bar none. This is not to disparage those folks -- getting a family of four through security during peak travel times with security agents barking semi-coherent orders is no cakewalk, even for experienced travelers, and they have as much right to use the air transit system as does any road warrior salesperson. I would even turn this one around; complaining about inexperienced travelers during the holidays is like complaining about French people when you take a vacation in France. If you don't want to travel with a lot of people around you, don't travel during the holidays.
For my part, I'll be traveling this holiday season, right there with the noobs putting wrapped presents on the security conveyor belt. See you then!