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Guide to stress-free holiday travel

With the economy in a tizzy, everyone is cutting back on just about everything, including travel. But don’t let that lull you into thinking everyone but you will be staying home this holiday season.
Image: Passengers move around Sky Harbor International Airport
Security lines and wait times often increase over the holidays. However, Harriet Baskas has 15 ways you can make your travels easier.Matt York / AP file

With the economy in a tizzy, everyone is cutting back on just about everything, including travel. But don’t let that lull you into thinking everyone but you will be staying home this holiday season.

The Air Transport Association of America (ATA) expects airlines to carry 10 percent fewer passengers during Thanksgiving 2008 than they did for Thanksgiving 2007.  But because there are also fewer scheduled flights, most planes will be flying 90 percent — and in some cases 100 percent — full. So don’t plan on stretching out too much during that Thanksgiving eve red-eye flight.

The nation’s passenger trains will also be packed. Amtrak has experienced record ridership this year and Thanksgiving is traditionally the railroad’s busiest season. Last year Amtrak carried 128,000 passengers on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. “This year,” says Amtrak spokesperson Cliff Cole, “we expect a 65 percent increase in passengers on that one day alone.” To prepare, the railroad has added additional trains for the holiday season, especially along the popular Northeast corridor, but Cole says many trains are already sold out.

Thinking of loading up the car and driving to grandma’s house? You’ll have plenty of company out there on the highways. Although the AAA travel organization predicts a slight dip in the number of people who will travel at least 50 miles this Thanksgiving holiday, there will still be 41 million Americans out on the road. So buckle-up and watch those speed limits.

Clearly, the sagging economy won’t keep everyone from being with friends and family during the holidays.

But how will you keep your sanity and stay out of trouble? Here are 15 tried-and-true tips to help you avoid the most common travel pitfalls this holiday season. (That’s a 50 percent bonus vs. top-10 lists you’ll see elsewhere. The Well Mannered Traveler refuses to cut back.)

1. Get some shuteye
Before a trip, it’s tempting to stay up late packing and clearing off your desk. But sleep-deprived travelers are cranky travelers. And cranky travelers are apt to find everything about travel irritating. So get a good night’s sleep.

2. Recon mission
Do as much as you can before you leave home. Reconfirm airline reservations the night before your trip and again before you walk out the door. Print out your boarding pass and, if you can, print a luggage tag for checked baggage. You might save time and money: through January 31, 2009, for example, United Airlines passengers who pay their checked bag fees online will get a 20 percent discount on the fee for the first checked bag.

3. Arrive early
Whether you’re traveling by train, plane, bus or car, get an early start. Generally, airlines advise being at the airport at least two hours before a domestic flight and at least three hours before an international flight. On the busiest travel days, lining up even earlier can’t hurt. Keep this in mind for your return trip as well.

4. Lighten up
During the past year, many airlines instituted — and most still have — fees for checked bags. Check your airline’s Web site for the latest fees and rules, and then consider leaving those extra outfits behind.

5. Dress for success — and speed
At airport security checkpoints, you’ll still need to remove your shoes, your coat, big belt buckles and other metal objects. Computers in TSA-approved cases, though, can now stay in their carriers. Got loose change? Bag it so you don’t lose it: since January, travelers have left almost $400,000 at checkpoints nationwide.

6. Take that outstretched hand
The TSA’s Black Diamond Self-Select program, now at 45 airports, lets passengers pick a security lane that matches their travel style: expert, casual or family.  If you don’t want to feel rushed, head for the family lanes, which will be operational at every U.S. airport by Thanksgiving Day.

7. Know what to pack
Travelers still end up giving up tons and tons (and tons) of prohibited items at airport security checkpoints. All travelers — novice, expert and everyone in between — should take a moment to read through the TSA's long and detailed list of what is permitted and prohibited as carry-on. Knitting needles? No problem. That pool cue? No way.

8. Know what not to carry
Bringing your special dish to Thanksgiving dinner? “Pumpkin pies shouldn’t be a problem, although they may be subject to additional screening,” says the TSA’s Nico Melendez, “but more than three ounces of  jams, jellies, sauces or other food items that might be considered a liquid or a gel won’t fly.” There should be no problem, though, taking any of those items on a train.

9. Know how to pack
TSA officers may ask you to unwrap gifts in your carry-on bag, so carry presents and wrapping paper separately. X-ray machines can’t always see through piles of books, CD’s and other dense items, so spread them out in your bag.

10. Keep what you’ve packed
If TSA officers discover a prohibited item in your carry-on, you can voluntarily give it up, return to the ticket counter and put the item in your checked baggage (good luck with that), or mail the item home. Some airports have postal centers, some airport shops stock padded mailers, and many airports now have mail-back kiosks conveniently located right next to the security checkpoints.

11. Bring a survival kit
Stock it with earplugs and an eyeshade, healthy snacks, a charged cell phone and a backup calling card, a small flashlight, sanitizing wipes, entertainment (books, DVD or music player, cards, etc.) and some extra cash.

12. Stay entertained
Weather, mechanical breakdowns, air-traffic control glitches, and a host of other uncontrollable events can leave you stuck at the airport. Your survival kit (above) can help, but so will a map of the airport and a printout of the facility's amenities, shops and restaurants.

13. Plan for problems
Load your cell phone with your trip information and the phone numbers of your airline, hotel, car rental agency, and ride home. Back it up all up on paper and make sure someone at home has a copy of all that information.

14. Know how to complain
If things go wrong, try not to yell at the people who are working the holiday and just trying to do their jobs. If you can’t calmly resolve a problem on site, take good notes, get names, take pictures, and follow up immediately with a phone call and/or letter when you get to your destination.

15. Know that your kids know how to travel
Whining, crying, unhappy kids in an airport, on a train, or in the back of the car are no fun. Make sure your young ones are prepared for an adventure. Bring along toys, books, snacks and activities. And chat with your kids about what the travel day will be like, what it means to travel, and how to behave in public.

Here’s to a stress-free, problem-free holiday!

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for