Image: Holiday travelers
Stew Milne  /  AP
Over the holidays, millions of people will converge on hundreds of airports and push travelers' patience to the limit. But a little preplanning can go a long way, MSNBC.com columnist Rob Lovitt writes.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/4/2007 11:55:35 AM ET 2007-01-04T16:55:35

“Oh, the humanity!”

And no, I’m not talking about the Hindenburg disaster. I’m talking about the mishap-in-the-making known as holiday travel. You know, that special time when millions of people converge on hundreds of airports, bad weather threatens, and delays seem all but inevitable.

And yet, despite the dire potential, it doesn’t have to be the holiday from you-know-where. You may not be able to do anything about the weather, but with a little pre-planning, you can minimize the hassles — and survive the hazards — of the season.

Before you go
Pack smart: Surprisingly, Thanksgiving travel went fairly smoothly because most travelers heeded the latest security rules about liquids and gels. To reiterate, both are allowed in carry-on bags provided they comply with TSA’s 3-1-1 program: 3-ounce bottles (or smaller) in one 1-quart, zip-topped bag, and only one bag per person. Need more? Pack it in your checked luggage.

Pack light: Better yet, buy your necessities when you get where you’re going. With so many people checking luggage these days, airline baggage-handling systems are bursting at the seams, and baggage problems have skyrocketed. If there were ever a time to join the carry-on-only crowd, this is it.

Print your boarding pass: Sure, DIY boarding passes save the airlines money, but they can also spare you a major crisis if you’re delayed on your way to the airport. If you’re already checked in, you’ve got one less thing to worry about when the clock is running.

Check the Web: Stay up to date on your flight’s status either via the airline’s Web site or travel alerts sent to your e-mail account or mobile device. For a more global picture, check out FlightStats, which features a treasure trove of historical and near-real-time data, including on-time records and nationwide flight status. It may be a sunny day locally, but distant delays can still wreak havoc on your travel plans.

Leave gifts unwrapped: Whether carry-on or checked, wrapped gifts may be unwrapped for closer inspection. If you must carry them, wrap them once you arrive. Otherwise, ship them ahead of time. Better yet, buy what you can online and have it wrapped and shipped direct to your giftees. Many online retailers offer free shipping with a minimum purchase.

Along the way
Park smart: Given the high holiday volumes, you don’t want to be circling the parking garage an hour before your flight. If you’re leaving your car at the airport, consider reserving a spot ahead of time. Go to AirportParkingReservations.com, plug in your travel dates, and you can compare prices and reserve a space at independent lots at more than 80 airports across the country.

Consider curbside: Even though many airlines now charge $1–$2 per bag for curbside check in, it’s a bargain when the line at the main counter is snaking down the terminal. Just remember that you’re adding an extra transfer point, so make sure your bag gets on the cart or the belt before you walk away. While you’re at it, confirm the airport code on the luggage tag to make sure your bags are going where you’re going.

Watch the clock: Many airlines close passenger and baggage check in for domestic flights 30 minutes prior to departure. However, at some airports, the cut-off is 45 minutes before departure. Know your limit, and give yourself enough time to get through the lines.

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BYOB, P, and H: That’s blanket, pillow, and headphones. With more airlines charging for cabin comforts (or eliminating them entirely), a lightweight blanket, neck pillow, and headphones (with a two-prong adaptor jack) will keep you covered, comfortable, and connected for inflight entertainment.

When trouble strikes
Double-tag your bags: As noted above, the new carry-on rules have pushed the airlines’ baggage-handling system to the breaking point. In October, there were more than 380,000 baggage reports filed, which works out to 7.51 bags per 1,000 passengers — an improvement over September’s dismal numbers, but still 65 percent over the year before. You can’t dodge the risk, but you can facilitate getting missing bags back by putting your contact information inside each piece.

Make the call: When worst comes to worst — your flight is canceled or so delayed you’ll miss your connection — it’s time to start dialing for alternatives. Sure, every other cell phone-carrying passenger will be doing the same thing, but it still beats joining the angry mob at the counter. If the delay will impact a hotel room or car reservation, you’ll want to touch base with those folks, as well.

Finally, bear in mind that even the best-laid plans are no match for bad weather, and sometimes, there’s nothing you can do but wait things out. Should that happen, I offer holiday wishes for peace in the terminal and good will to all.

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