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14 ways to survive a holiday flight

'Tis the season...for long lines and frayed nerves. Santa may not have to fly commercial, but you do. Here's how to cope.
Image:  Aircraft lined up at airport
It's worth paying more to fly nonstop. The combination of crowds and bad weather is a tinderbox — one big storm and the system explodes. In winter, avoid flying through Chicago, Denver, or Minneapolis.Will Powers / AP file

Path of least resistance: After years of learning the hard way that the days on either side of Christmas are like something out of "Halloween", I now fly home on December 25. Airports and planes are much less crowded.

Don't get stuck: It's worth paying more to fly nonstop. The combination of crowds and bad weather is a tinderbox: One big storm and the system explodes. In winter, I wouldn't fly through Chicago, Denver, or Minneapolis if the airlines paid me.

Supply and demand: Staying in a hotel over Christmas? Look for properties that tend to draw a business clientele. Occupancy rates drop on and around the holidays, making for deals.

In with the in crowd: Join all loyalty clubs, even if you don't care about the points/miles. You'll get treated better, particularly if the hotel or car rental agency is overbooked.

A spot of one's own: Airport parking lots are more likely to be full around Christmas and New Year's. Look into private parking lots located off airport premises. They'll often guarantee a spot, they have free shuttles to and from the terminal, and they're cheaper.

Losing the wait: This is when airports get more people than they were built to handle. You can—and should—check in online up to 24 hours in advance. Just go to the carrier's Web site; you'll be walked through checking in and printing your boarding pass. If you're not checking bags, you'll be able to go straight to the gate. But it's a good idea even if you are checking bags, because many airlines have bag drops where, if you've checked in, you can hand over bags without waiting in the main line.

Ease your burden: I ship gifts ahead so that I don't have to check bags. Airlines and airports aren't handling bags as quickly or as reliably as they used to, and I don't like to wait after finally getting off the plane.

Time on your side: Go to the airport earlier than normal. Airport security is a nightmare around the holidays because of the sheer number of people and the fact that many of them are infrequent, inexperienced fliers.

No secrets: Wrap any gifts after you arrive. The TSA reserves the right to open anything.

Speaking of the TSA ...: The rules for carrying on liquids and gels are confusing and not uniformly enforced. You can bring as many containers as you want, provided they all hold three ounces or less and fit in a single one-quart Ziploc bag. Containers do not need to have the manufacturer's label. You're supposed to remove the Ziploc from your carry-on when you go through security, but I've never done it and never had a problem. In fact, I always have a four-ounce bottle of moisturizer and have yet to have a problem with that, either. Many people have encountered screeners who won't let their stuff go through. If your liquids and gels are valuable to you, follow the rules to a T. If not, you may find it not worth the trouble.

The secure zone: If you want to bring water or other drinks, buy them once you've passed through airport security.

And now, boarding: People are carrying on a ton of stuff, usually because they're bearing gifts. If you are, too, get on the plane as early as possible. Different airlines board passengers differently; sometimes, the same airline does it in different ways. Stand near the gate; you may even want to ask the agent how the boarding will happen. If the agents are boarding the plane by zone or group, wait until the group before yours is almost done, then enter the line. By the time you reach the front, your group will probably be called. And if not, what's the worst that can happen? They'll make you wait right near the gate.

Nice guys disembark last: I wish we lived in a world where you were guaranteed overhead space near your seat. Until we do, I refuse to store my bag behind me, because I'll never get off the plane. Look ahead while you board: If the space above your seat is full, put your stuff as close to it as possible, and don't be afraid to take someone else's space. After all, someone took yours.

The pickup game: The days of circling the arrivals area are thankfully coming to an end. More and more airports have "cell phone lots" where drivers can park for free and then wait for arriving passengers to call. Use them!