Image: Holiday travel
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Traveling on actual holidays can save major headaches, the Well-Mannered Traveler contends. “If your family can shift when it eats that big meal, has that big party or gathers around for an exchange of gifts, you might avoid much of the hassle of holiday travel.”
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/7/2007 6:27:36 PM ET 2007-11-07T23:27:36

Over the river and through the woods.

If only holiday travel was that easy, right?

It’s not. So if you’re headed to grandma’s house by airplane this holiday season, make sure you’re armed and ready before you set out for the airport.

Now before you get alarmed and start thinking about sending the folks from the TSA out after me, please keep in mind:

  • I’m pretty sure the TSA already has my picture posted somewhere (that’s a story for another column), and
  • I didn’t say locked and loaded.

After all, this is the “Well-Mannered Traveler” column.

So by “armed,” I mean that during the holidays it’s more important than ever to be prepared with information when you head to the airport. The essentials include a list of phone numbers for your airline (and its partner carriers), hotel and rental car agency, the person who dropped you off (in case they need to come back and get you), and for the person picking you up at your destination. Additionally, a schedule of alternate flights will come in handly if your flight is canceled and you need to tweak your plans.

By “ready” I mean that you need to arrive at the airport ready for, well, pretty much anything.  Arrive for “battle” with plenty of patience and good humor and with enough books, music, snacks and other items (checkbooks that need balancing, thank-you cards that need writing) to keep you, your companions and maybe even your seatmates or those kids running around the gate area occupied and entertained during delays and setbacks that are so common this time of year.

Experienced travelers know bad weather, broken planes, crowded airports and overbooked flights are just part of what passes for air travel. None of that disappears during the busy holiday season; it’s just that winter storms, thousands of once-a-year travelers and all those holiday worries and expectations get thrown into the mix.

So, if you assume there will be delays and setbacks on the way to grandma’s house this year, you'll be on your way to being “armed and ready” for stress-free travel.

What else might help?  Here are five more tips and strategies for well-mannered holiday travelers:

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1. Celebrate another time
Consider not traveling this time of year. Some families avoid the stress, expense and over-inflated expectations of the “official” holiday season by planning their gatherings when the weather is better, airplanes less crowded and deals more plentiful.

2.  Time shift
Highways, train stations, airports and airplanes are often quite empty on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. If your family can shift when it eats that big meal, has that big party or gathers around for an exchange of gifts, you might avoid much of the hassle of holiday travel.

3. Linger longer
A missed flight connection can ruin the holidays. If possible, book a direct flight and start your trip early in the day when flights are more likely to be on time. If you can’t fly direct, make sure you leave lots of time between flights. It’s better to spend an hour or two poking around the shops and restaurants at the airport and going standby on an earlier flight than worrying about how the heck you’re going to race your way across the airport to try to reach the gate for that connecting flight.

4. Read and research
Some of the stress of travel comes from not knowing what to expect. You can find a lot of real-time and historical data about airports and airlines, including statistics about on-time departures, at the Department of Transportation’s Web site. If you live in or are going to a city served by more than one airport, for example, you might increase your chances of arriving on-time by choosing the better-performing facility.

5. Reconfirm, reconfirm, reconfirm
I admit it: I often overlook this crucial stress-reducing and potentially trip-saving step. But I learned my lesson recently when I showed up bright and early for a flight that was scrubbed from the airline’s schedule a month earlier. Video: Higher prices for Thanksgiving travelers

Many people buy their holiday tickets and book their seats months — even a year — in advance. But airlines are notorious for changing routes and schedules, for “losing” seat assignments and, sometimes, going out of business and disappearing entirely. To avoid being one of those folks who ends up screaming at the ticket agent with your family cowering behind you, it’s important to reconfirm all the details of your flight a few weeks, a few days and yes, even a few hours before your trip. You can do a lot of this online, but if there’s anything — and I mean anything — that you’re unsure of, grab your phone and call your airline.

Of course, once you arrive at grandma’s house for that holiday celebration there’s a whole different set of strategies and travel manners you’ll need to deploy if you want to be invited back next year. We’ll go over those in next week’s column, so send in your stories and tips.

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”

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