The Brancatelli File



October 24, 2002 -- Allow me to paraphrase that wonderful old holiday ditty: It's beginning to look a lot like Halloween-Ramadan-Thanksgiving-Chanukah-Christmas-Kwanzaa-New Year's everywhere you go...

So, naturally, broadcasters, print reporters and Web scribes have been asking about my best tips for less stressful travel during this upcoming omnibus holiday season. Unfortunately, none of them want my most creative suggestion.

Along about the 30th background interview--it could have been with the newspaper in Des Moines or talking to the morning man at the all-news station in Pittsburgh--I realized that the best way to reduce travel stress this season was to simply avoid reading all the holiday tips lists that us journalists are planning to publish in the next few weeks.

I'm not kidding. I've reviewed dozens of soon-to-be-published lists and they've already stressed me out. They're simultaneously overflowing with bad karma and a million annoying suggestions for behavior modification. They're so gloomy that I'm more frightened than usual of what's waiting for us out there on the road.

Besides, who the hell wants to travel after reading some overheated travel expert in the Chicago papers describe airports as "the vortex of all bad feelings" during the holidays. Oh, damn, I was that overheated travel expert, wasn't I? Sometimes I am so depressing.

Anyway, keeping in mind that my new best tip for less stressful holiday travel is to avoid reading about how to reduce your stress, here are some thoughts on how us business travelers can keep our stress levels down during the next few weeks.

Beginning next week--on November 1, the "official" first day of the "winter" travel season--and for the next six weeks, flights and airports are likely to be extremely quiet. In fact, we're entering one of the slackest travel periods on the calendar, the one time of the year where business travelers are truly masters of our own domains. Except for the frenzy on the day before and the weekend after Thanksgiving, the holiday travelers won't really arrive en masse until about 10 days before Christmas. Enjoy the quiet and the solitude while you can.

Accept the fact that we lose control of the system between December 15 and the first weekend of January. Granny's gonna be out there taking her first flight to see the grandkids since 9/11. Aunt Tilly will be expecting to use the whole carry-on bin for her 75-inch hatbox. Families will be asking you to change your seat so they can all sit together. Cousin Harry, who remembered to pack 50 fruitcakes, but forgot his book, will want to chatter about his nieces and nephews during the entire flight.

I say go with the flow. Give the amateurs a break. Share what you know: Take them over to the obscure check-in line where there's never anyone waiting. Make a few of them your guest at your airport club. Give them your back-up bottle of water when the beverage cart doesn't reach Row 27. Try to explain all the annoying new rules about oversized luggage and standby travel. Basically, give 'em the benefit of the doubt. We fly all the time, but, for them, this is a big deal. Would it kill you to walk a few confused infrequent flyers to their boarding gates?

Even in these depressed travel times, you know that holiday flights are going be packed and others are going to be canceled. Now more than ever is when your elite frequent-flyer credentials matter. The competition for empty seats on those peak days around the big holidays will be ferocious, so make sure you're flying with the airline where you have the most clout. Make sure that they know you're an elite-level flyer because it'll get you preferential seat assignments and a priority spot on the waitlists. And, in this era of "no waivers, no favors," be very creative when you explain why you need a waiver or a favor.

The only thing worse than being on the road during the holidays is working the flights and the airports and the hotels. You couldn't pay me to be a gate agent or a flight attendant or a front-desk clerk during the best of times, so I'm thinking working conditions during this holiday season will be positively Dickensian. Besides, a lot of those airline employees are looking down the barrel of massive givebacks and possible post-holiday layoffs. Don't add to their misery by being nasty. Remember: The gate agent who's just announced a canceled flight has already been abused by 50 travelers before you.

I work at being extra jolly during the holidays. I stock my carry-on with silly things--little boxes of truffles, candy canes, exotic Christmas ornaments--to give to employees who look even more stressed than I do. You can't imagine the joy you'll get from smiling at overworked and underpaid gate agents, handing them a little treat with your boarding pass and saying, "Happy Holidays." (You might get upgraded, too, but this is the season for giving, not for getting... )

Alter your travel patterns during the holiday season. Airport access roads will be more congested and parking lots will be packed, so leave earlier than usual to avoid missing your flight. Pack very light and carry on, so you can bypass the long lines at the baggage check-in counters and baggage-claim carousels. If you must check bags and parcels, then consider one of the new luggage-delivery services such as Fly as early in the day as you can to circumvent the cascade of delays that decimate the hub-and-spoke system. Don't book the last flight of the day (you'll be stranded if it cancels). Before you fly, find out if the airports you're using have any decent shops. You're gonna be spending a lot of downtime at the airport, so you might as well get some gift-shopping done while you wait.

Lastly, give something back. When you pass the airport and hotel collection points for Toys for Tots or the Salvation Army or UNICEF, dig into your pocket and fish out a few bucks. There are lots of folks out there who'd be thrilled to have our problems this season.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.