The Brancatelli File



November 23, 2006 -- 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. Nobody goes over the river and through the woods to visit grandma. 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 is on right now, when business travelers cede 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. But relative 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.

Airlines around the world now offer online seat selection and online check-in up to 24 hours before departure. Use them. Having your seat assignment and boarding pass before you leave for the airport eliminates two of the major stress factors of holiday travel. It will also allow you to bypass a third stress point--the checked-luggage line--because most carriers now offer "fast bag drop" stations for travelers who've used online check-in.

The government's two-bag carry-on limit is not written in stone. The airlines reserve the right to force you to check one of the carry-on bags on full flights. Assume holiday flights will be full, so consider traveling with only one carry-on bag. How do you slim down? One way is to put your toiletries in a checked bag. Why bother trying to stuff all of your lotions, potions, gels and pastes into a one-quart zippered bag? Just put them all in your checked bag and skip the time-consuming arguments at the security-screening checkpoint.

You know that you should always carry your prescription medicine and eyeglasses in your carry-on bag, right? But also make sure to 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 underwear in your carry-on bag. If you're stuck en route when an airport is closed for weather delays or security reasons, you may end up spending a night at an intermediate point without access to your checked bags.

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 a bag 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 bags instead. UPS, FedEx and 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. Want another: IAH is Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, but IAD is Washington's Dulles Airport.

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.

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 remember: 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; 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?

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 that 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, fruit, several bags of nuts 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 and whether flight attendants will get through the aisles on packed holiday flights. You could also fast during shorter flights. After all, there are lots of feasts and parties during the holidays. Do you really need to eat in-flight, too?

Don't scrimp on water. Airline travel is dehydrating and you should drink at least eight ounces of water for every hour of flying. You can't bring "outside" bottles of water through the security checkpoints anymore. But do pick up several bottles from the food court inside the "sterile" area beyond security. Do not assume you'll get all the beverages you need in-flight. Flight attendants won't come down the aisles often enough to suit your needs.

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 relatively quiet oases in the maelstrom of airports during the holiday season. Your sanity is worth the relatively small investment. (By the way, executive members of receive a 20 percent discount on Priority Pass, a club network with almost 500 locations around the world.)

Delays and cancellations will wreck havoc with your itinerary, but they can be managed 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. Start with a call to the airline. The telephone agents can probably 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.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.