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Home groan: the dark heart of holiday travel

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The gifts are wrapped, the lights are up and the Web is awash in advice on how to survive the insanity of holiday travel. Read enough “chaos in the concourse” articles and you could be forgiven for chucking the whole idea and staying put.

But chances are, you won’t. According to AAA, approximately 65.2 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles over the Christmas–New Year’s holiday with 8.9 million of them going by air. Rest assured, it will only seem as if every last one of them is standing in front of you in security and boarding your flight.

Yes, flying during the holidays is a hassle, but there’s no escaping the fact that Christmas and family go together like seat backs and tray tables. In fact, according to another recent survey  — this one from Yahoo!/Harris Interactive — 83 percent of adults agreed you can’t put a price on going home for the holidays.

The other 17 percent, presumably, figured it wasn’t worth a plugged nickel.

Truth in numbers
The Yahoo! poll went on to reveal a wealth of additional information about holiday travel. Thirty-eight percent of U.S. adults plan to travel during the holidays. Almost half (49 percent) said they’d rather celebrate the holidays on vacation (with family) than at home. And 27 percent said they’d give up their presents in order to relax on vacation instead of celebrating the holidays with their family. It’s unclear whether the other 73 percent were already relaxed or figured that stress for presents was a fair trade.

Another question asked: If you were to receive two free airline tickets to travel during the holiday season, which of the following types of trips would you choose? Twenty-four percent said “Home to be with my family,” a heartwarming sentiment, to be sure, and more than enough to top “Big-city sightseeing” (16 percent) and “Mountain vacation” (six percent).

Still, home and hearth were no match for “Tropical or beach vacation” (27 percent) and scored only slightly higher than “None — I’d rather not travel during the holiday season” (19 percent). The former I can understand — given the horrendous weather lately, a sunny beach sounds mighty appealing — but I don’t know what to say about the latter. Maybe something like, Hey, if you don’t want ‘em, can I have ‘em?

Finally, it’s worth noting that while 94 percent of respondents love being with family for the holidays, 43 percent also dread something about being with family for the holidays. The most dreaded? Telling family about what’s going on their personal lives. The statistics don’t say anything about listening to said stories but, personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why so many respondents said they’d rather hit the beach.

Obviously, I’ve taken a few liberties with the data, but only to make a larger point. We all know there are pros and cons to spending time with family, just as there are pros and cons to traveling over the holidays. Each one is a balancing act between the possible and the unavoidable, and we all do our best to get through the pain and suffering along the way.

In a way, it reminds me of the scene in “Annie Hall” in which Woody Allen describes his love life by way of the old joke about the guy who goes to see a psychiatrist. Doctor, the guy says, “My brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” The doctor, in turns, suggests he have his brother committed. “I would,” he replies, “but I need the eggs.”

Free advice (and worth every penny)
So, yeah, like 65 million other Americans, I’ll be traveling during the Christmas holiday, and because I live on the West Coast and my family doesn’t, I’ll be joining the 9 million or so who will be flying the unfriendly skies.

And like a lot of them, I’ll follow the experts’ advice whenever I can. I’ll avoid connecting flights and airports prone to bad weather. I’ll print my boarding pass before I head to the airport, leave presents unwrapped and pack with security screening in mind. Three-ounce toiletries? Check. One-quart, zip-top bag? Check. Set of matching snow globes for family members? Probably not.

Alas, some so-called advice simply won’t apply. Sure, I could fly on Christmas Day, but only if I want to get there in time to do the dishes. And I could look into airports with better on-time arrival statistics, but when your family lives in South Jersey, the choices basically go from bad (69 percent at Philadelphia) to worse (63 percent at Newark).

So why do it? Because statistics and advice aside, this is one of the few times during the year when work schedules, school schedules and the other schedules that define our lives match up. We do it because we can and because we feel we should.

Either that, or we just need the eggs.