Bah humbug! As much as I love the holidays themselves, I hate holiday travel. With long lines at the airport, thousands of cars on the road, and winter storms everywhere you look, it’s easy to turn into the grinch.
Nearly 100 million Americans will travel this holiday season, so it’s no surprise that it’s not festive and cheery. There’s no way to avoid high prices, bad weather, and crowded airports, but these tips will make it easier to enjoy your travels this winter.
Holiday Travel Tips
1. Always, Always Allow Extra Time
Years of travel experience has taught me one thing: holiday travel rarely goes as planned. Expect to wait in line (or in traffic) and be prepared for unexpected delays. This is not the time to cut things close! If you’re flying, get to the airport earlier than usual to check-in and go through security. If you’re driving, try and plan your journey with off-peak times to avoid traffic and congestion.
Pack a few things to keep you comfortable and entertained in case of delays. A good book (or Kindle!), a snack, and fully charged electronics will at least keep you relatively happy when you have time to kill along the way.
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If you know ahead of time that you have long layovers at the airport, this is the time to pack or buy airport lounge access. Usually, they have free snacks, drinks, and Wi-Fi, along with more comfortable seating than in the terminal. Don’t expect peace and quiet during the holidays, but it’s definitely less hectic than sitting by the gate!
2. Ship as Much as Possible Ahead of Time
Packing everything in a carry-on is already difficult, but add in holiday gifts and you’re asking for a headache. Yes, you can pack gifts in your checked luggage without as many restrictions, but it’s not a perfect solution. The expensive hand cream you bought for Grandma is bound to leak all over and the TSA is likely to unwrap the pocket knife you had engraved for someone special. Not to mention, if your luggage is lost or delayed, you don’t want your gifts to be missing!
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You can avoid all these issues by shipping gifts ahead of time. If you’re shopping online anyway, just have gifts shipped directly to the recipient. Once you arrive, you can wrap things as needed and pass them out to everyone in person. Even if you’re not shopping online, mailing gifts can be just as cheap as paying for checked luggage and won’t require you to wait at baggage claim after a long trip.
3. Look Out for Yourself
No one will ever look after your best interests better than you do! Check for flight delays before they’re officially announced (usually there’s better information online than on airport monitors) and track winter storms that might impact your intended route.
If you have a flight delay or cancellation that requires rebooking, be your own advocate. Proactively look into other flight options that are available. Consider which alternate airports and schedules (if any) are acceptable to you so you can help the agent rebook you quickly. Services like TripIt may preemptively offer alternate flights as well. If you’re driving, ask around for alternate routes when needed.
This is also an important time of year to consider trip insurance. Weather can change your plans in a hurry. I was “trapped” in Charlotte after bad storms earlier this year, but insurance reimbursed me for an airport hotel, taxi, and meals.
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4. Plan a Second Winter Getaway
I am incredibly fortunate to visit my parents each Christmas in New Mexico, but that visit is all about reconnecting with family and our holiday traditions. It’s not a vacation, so if that’s what you’re looking for, book something separately.
Time off over the holidays is a great chance to research and plan your next trip while you’re sitting in front of the fireplace with a hot cup of cocoa. I think planning a trip is half the fun. Choose a snowy winter wonderland like Quebec City or fun in the sun in one of my favorite countries, Nicaragua.
5. Redeem Your Credit Card Rewards
If there’s one upside to spending tons of money on holiday gifts and travel to visit family, it’s that you’ll earn plenty of credit card rewards from these expenses. It’s nearly impossible to use those frequent flyer miles for trips between Christmas and New Year’s, but it’s a great time to sit down and learn how to use them.
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Use that time off from work to look into getting great value, whether you’ve earned miles, points, or cash back. This is also the time to start thinking forward about creating a credit card spending strategy. Do you have the appropriate cards to earn rewards that are important to you?
Scour sites like Flyertalk, BoardingArea, and do plenty of googling. You can teach yourself the tricks and tips to workaround program restrictions since you’ll have time off from work. Look at redemption costs and dream about where those rewards can take you!
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