The Brancatelli File



October 30, 2003 -- I'm almost old enough to remember when holiday travel was a more intimate affair, a matter of going over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house.

Not anymore. Now we all drive to airports on traffic-jammed roads and fly around the world on packed planes to see our friends and families for the holidays. And the rush starts right about now, when business travelers begin ceding control of the air-travel system to those jolly holiday travelers who often can't tell an airport from an air balloon.

So how will we all survive and co-exist until the end of the first week of January, the traditional end of the end-of-the-year holiday rush? Here are a baker's dozen of my best suggestions. The more you fly, the more you know this stuff. But it never hurts to read over this list and check it twice.

Transportation Department statistics show that flights scheduled to depart and arrive early in the day have the best on-time performance. Of course, the entire system has been performing at about 80 percent on time since the post-9/11 schedule cuts. Still, timeliness isn't the only reason to fly early: If your selected flight is canceled, you'll have a better chance of being rebooked on a flight later in the day. Conversely, if you book an evening flight, you're not only subject to longer delays, you also may not get on another flight that day if your original one cancels.

Don't risk missing your flight because of a ground delay. Roads to, from and inside the airport and airport parking lots are clogged with traffic during the holidays, so allow more time than normal. And even though there should be fewer cars headed to the airport this year, a lot of former flyers are driving to their destinations. That means the major urban roads might be more crowded than during any normal holiday season.

On-airport parking lots are filled to overflow during the holiday season. So why bother driving into that madness? Use an off-airport private lot instead. All offer shuttle service directly to your departure terminal and many offer interesting perks such as car washes and oil changes. Alternately, take a car service or taxi to the airport. And trust me on this: Do not rely on friends or family to pick you up or drop you off at the airport. The holiday season is stressful enough. Why dump the extra grief of an airport run on anyone, especially people you care about.

The two-bag carry-on limit imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration after the September 11 terrorist attacks is not written in stone. The airlines reserve the right to force you to check one of the carry-on bags on full flights. Even in these downsized travel times, you should assume holiday flights will be full. So consider traveling with only one carry-on bag.

In their relentless drive to make air travel unpleasant, the major carriers are now cracking down on what they claim to be "excess weight" bags. They are charging up to $50 on luggage that weighs over the new 50-pound free limit. All the major carriers are also strictly enforcing the limit of two free checked bags per traveler. Check additional bags and you'll pay for it. One last thought: Consider shipping your bags instead. Companies such as Sports Express offer cost-effective options. They'll pick up your bag at your home or office and ship it direct to your hotel or your final destination.

Make sure you examine the 3-letter code on your luggage tags. If the bags are incorrectly routed or mistagged, they are guaranteed to get lost. And it's not hard for a bag to be misdirected. One example: LGA is LaGuardia Airport in New York, but LGW is Gatwick Airport in London.

Reduce your stress level further by mailing your gifts or sending them by an overnight courier or package service. It may cost a few dollars, but the stuff will get there and you don't have to carry it. And abandon all hope of taking gifts as carry-on. First of all, the gifts will count against your carry-on limit. Secondly, wrapped presents will be unwrapped and examined if their contents can't be verified by the X-ray machines at security.

The post-September 11 security regimen requires government-approved photo identification to clear security checkpoints. A current driver's license is fine, but the operative word there is current, since expired licenses technically don't count. If you have a passport, bring it along, even if you're flying domestically. And don't even think of showing up at the airport without a ticket during the holiday. And remember: At virtually all airports, travelers using E-tickets must now have an airline-issued boarding pass, receipt or itinerary to clear security checkpoints.

Dealing with the long lines--and all the extra time you'll have if everything goes swiftly--is less stressful if you're prepared. Bring plenty to read and/or lots of CDs and DVDs. If you're traveling with children, make sure you've got a supply of small games, toys and snacks to keep them occupied. If you're traveling with infants, make sure you have a sufficient supply of diapers and food. You won't find this kind of stuff at most airport shops. And accept the fact that there may be unexpected security delays and diversions: Abrupt closures of terminals and entire airports for real or imagined security breaches may be common this holiday season.

No one likes airline food, so why complain because the carriers aren't giving any away anymore? Instead, pack a sandwich, a small picnic of fruits, nuts, cheeses or a supply of energy or protein bars. Or, pick up a snack at an airport food court. I wouldn't rely on those airline food sales programs. Who knows for sure where they operate these days. You could also consider fasting during your shorter flight. After all, there are lots of feasts and parties during the holidays. Skipping a meal wouldn't hurt, would it? But don't scrimp on water. Airline travel is dehydrating and you should drink at least eight ounces of water for every hour of flying. Carry several bottles of water in your carry-on bag.

You know you should always carry your prescription medicine and eyeglasses in your carry-on bag, right? But also make sure you bring the prescriptions, too. In the holiday rush, you might misplace the drugs or glasses, but you'll be able to replace them with minimal hassle if you have the prescriptions. And consider throwing a change of clothes--or at least fresh underwear--in your carry-on bag. If you're stuck en route when an airport is closed for weather delays or security reasons, then you may end up spending a night at an intermediate point without access to your checked bags.

If you've got a long layover between flights or are faced with an unexpected delay, consider joining an airline's club network. Although club membership is an annual affair, many airlines sell "day memberships" or weekly or monthly passes. The clubs are quiet oases in the maelstrom of airports during the holiday season. Your sanity is worth the relatively small investment. By the way, members receive a 20 percent discount on Priority Pass, a club network with hundreds of locations around the world.

A flight delay, a cancellation or a security-inspired airport closure will wreck havoc with your itinerary, but it can be managed better if you plan ahead. For example: Program your mobile phone with the toll-free reservation numbers of your chosen airlines. If a disruption occurs, don't go back to the ticket counter. Just call the airline. The telephone agents can do almost anything the folks at the ticket counter can do. Reserve a speed-dial button for your favorite hotel chain, too. If a major disruption occurs and passengers begin scrambling for hotel rooms, then you'll be in a better position to score last-minute lodgings when you can make an immediate call to your chain's reservation number. Programming your car-rental firm's toll-free number into the phone wouldn't hurt, either. You may find yourself stranded at an airport that's within driving distance of your final destination. Having the rental firm's number in your phone memory will save time and effort.

Finally, allow me to go axiomatic: Come to a flight with a positive mindset and your chances of having a good experience are improved. But come to the airport stressed and strung out and you're almost sure to have a bad flight. So leave your emotional baggage behind. It probably won't clear security anyway.

This column originally appeared at

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