Completely stress-free holiday travel is a myth as big as Santa. But with some preparation and planning, you can survive the upcoming holiday season away from home with your sanity intact.
If you are taking to the friendly skies, be sure to get your tickets early, even before the holiday season really takes off. Generally, you should start looking to book in October. With more and more airlines feeling the economic crunch, there are fewer flights being scheduled. This means that planes fill up faster and that last-minute deals are a thing of the past, at least for now.
The Transportation Security Administration has an excellent website (http://www.tsa.gov) with plenty of resources for the sky-bound holiday traveler. The TSA recommends that to keep from feeling rushed, you give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and get through security -- at least two hours before your flight is scheduled to leave. If you're traveling with children or elderly people, look for the family/medical security lanes, as they offer special assistance. Remember that carry-on liquids have to be three ounces or less and fit into a quart-size zip-close bag. This applies to gifts as well as toiletries, so if you are traveling with food or presents, it might be worth the extra money to ship them ahead or check them with your luggage. Any present you are bringing as a carry-on may be subject to additional screening, so don't wrap them.
If your holiday travels have you hitting the road, then consider this: According to AAA's 2009 holiday forecast, "86 percent of (holiday) vacationers are expected to travel by automobile." That means you're going to have plenty of company out there on the open road. What can you do to make the experience as painless as possible? Plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead:
--Have your car or truck thoroughly checked out before hitting the road, and make sure your vehicle's basic maintenance is up-to-date. There's nothing worse than spending the holidays in the middle of nowhere because a fan belt snapped and no service station is open to fix it.
--Have an alternate route ready. Accidents happen and can back up traffic for hours. Don't be so committed to a single route that you can't bail if things start looking hairy.
--Schedule bathroom and walking breaks. Unless you're a trucker, you're probably not used to spending so much time in your car. You may be making great time, but your body will thank you for the breaks later.
--If you have kids with you, make sure there's plenty to keep them occupied, because if the back-seaters are bored and whining, no one in the car will be happy. But make sure that whatever you choose to keep them busy won't drive you crazy by proxy. Plenty of hand-held games and other toys make sounds that could be grating after a while.
Finally, if your holiday travels have you riding the rails, Amtrak's Karina Romero has some sage advice: "The earlier in the day you travel the likelier your train will be on time. When we run into problems, it can have a ripple effect, especially during the holiday season."
According to Romero, the busiest day for Amtrak is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and "despite the economy, Americans are still traveling by train." Last December, Amtrak saw a 4.8 percent increase in riders from the previous year. She also notes that riders can "purchase tickets early using Amtrak.com," and the website is the best place to find the rules and regulations of traveling by train.
Despite all of your efforts, there are still plenty of things out of your control that can send even the best-laid plans down the tubes. What to do if Mother Nature decides that what the holidays really need is a blizzard? Or you start to feel like changing your identity and getting on the first plane to anywhere to escape your family? Embrace the insanity. The best stories come from things going wrong, so remember that this year's three-hour layover that turned into a three-day airport camping trip could be the holiday yarn you retell for years to come. And everyone needs a good holiday disaster story. Travel safely!