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Holiday travel survival guide

The airports are crowded, the weather is dodgy, and stress levels are high. Here's where to go and how to get there with your sanity intact.

The airports are crowded, the weather is dodgy, and stress levels are high. Here's where to go and how to get there with your sanity intact.

It seems like every worthwhile destination is overcrowded and overpriced around the holidays. Can you recommend some reasonable ways to avoid overpaying?
Christmas and Hanukkah are wholesome family holidays, when most people want wholesome family destinations. So one idea is to be contrarian and go where demand is weak. Consider heading to a party town like Las Vegas or New Orleans. The Big Easy has a long tradition of offering discounted hotel rates, free concerts, and free cooking demos during the first three weeks of December; check out for event schedules and special hotel deals.

Deluxe king rooms at the Lafayette Hotel, a landmark property right outside the French Quarter, cost $219 over New Year's but only $79 the week before. Likewise, discounts are widely available in Vegas's 140,000 or so hotel rooms until around December 29: Rooms at the Excalibur start at $201 on New Year's, while they're just $41 a few days earlier. These are random examples; you're likely to find similar deals at most major hotels in Vegas or New Orleans.

Are there any dates around the holidays that are less expensive or less crowded?
Flying on the holiday itself — Thanksgiving or Christmas days in particular — is a surefire way to beat the crowds and pay less. How much less? Find out for yourself by using a flexible date search tool on one of the booking engines. Just about every site now offers a flex tool, where you can retrieve fares for a few days before and after a specified date; I prefer Kayak's, mostly because it involves very few clicks. In a recent sample search, from Denver to New York LaGuardia for Thanksgiving week, dozens of options appeared in seconds: The cheapest flight for prime dates (Tuesday to Sunday) was $509, but you could score a ticket for about half that ($279) by traveling Thanksgiving Day and coming back the following Tuesday.

The surest way to snag a deal is by skipping the prime holiday weeks entirely. In the week or two right after New Year's, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and other previously packed — and pricey — destinations are suddenly uncrowded and discounted. (During such times, hotels and resorts typically announce deals at the last minute, so my advice is to pick up the phone two or three weeks before your travel dates and just ask for one.) Somebody has to hold down the fort in the office during Christmas week, so you might want to volunteer for duty if it means you can take time off later and enjoy a quiet beach or empty ski slopes.

What are some tips for surviving the airport experience on the busiest days?
Because big crowds and long security waits are out of your control, it's important to take advantage of every time-saving, hassle-avoiding technique at your disposal. The day before you fly, check in online, print boarding passes, and pay for checked luggage at your home or office.

Airport parking lots are expensive and often full during holiday periods, so park off-airport (find options at ). Ship gifts ahead instead of dragging them on the plane; if you're organized and can send them a week in advance, it's probably cheaper than flying with them anyway, depending on airline fees and what you're shipping. If you are bringing gifts on the flight, don't wrap them — you may have to tear off the paper at security. Know the TSA's rules concerning liquids, carry-ons, and prohibited items (study up at ), and wear loafers or other shoes that can be slipped on and off easily. (But do wear socks! You really don't want to pick up a fungus and spend the holidays scratching your feet maniacally.) Also, throw a few extra quart-size zip-top plastic baggies into your carry-on, just in case someone in line forgot theirs. 'Tis the season for giving, after all.

I'm debating whether to fly or take the train. What are the pros and cons of each?
If you're even considering the train, it's probably the better option. As a rule of thumb, for shorter trips (five hours or less by train), always ride the rails on busy travel days. When taking the train, you can weather a storm more easily (and you're less likely to be affected by bad weather in another part of the country).

Plus, there are no security checkpoints, and you can forget about outrageous change fees or last-minute fare hikes. Amtrak also has discounts that most airlines don't — such as the rules that kids ages 2 to 15 pay half price and seniors 62 and older receive 15 percent off.

How do I minimize the chances of a flight delay or cancellation?
I always try to get on the first flight out, before delays have a chance to wreak havoc across the country. And don't count on the fact that the skies are clear to reduce your risk of a late departure or other scheduling problems. Last December, extreme weather was responsible for less than 2 percent of delays at airports across the U.S., while plain old late-arriving aircraft accounted for 8 percent to 11 percent. My biggest piece of advice: Do everything you can to book nonstop flights. Saving a few bucks with a connection just isn't worth it around the holidays. There's too much at stake.

BNA: Three stages at Nashville International host live local country, rock, bluegrass, and blues music.

IAD: At D.C.'s Dulles, a Smithsonian Store sells everything from Native American jewelry to astronaut-themed chessboards.

JFK: Six XpresSpa outlets offer spa treatments (manicures, massages, facials) in as little as 10 minutes.

ORD: At Chicago O'Hare's Terminal 2, the "Kids on the Fly" play area has a tot-size air traffic control tower, a helicopter, and more.

OAK: Fentons Creamery, in Oakland, is an outpost of a 115-year-old Bay Area ice-cream temple. Try the Swiss milk chocolate flavor.

Don't spend your time stuck in the airport being miserable. Amuse yourselves with this game that's a mishmash of a treasure hunt, I Spy, and plain old nosy people-watching. Here are five things you're likely to see while waiting for your flight; the first person in your group to spot them all wins.

• Adult wearing Crocs
• Person on a Bluetooth headset
• Traveler wearing a neck pillow
• A love connection at the bar
• Parent with a child on a leash

There are 25 major hub airports in the U.S., and if you're making a connection, chances are good you're heading through one of them this holiday season. Reduce your risk of delay by targeting the five best ones by on-time departure (and avoiding the worst).

Best: Hubs with the highest percentage of on-time departures
76% Charlotte
75% Houston Intercontinental
72% D.C. Reagan National
71% Cleveland
70% Phoenix

Worst: Hubs with the lowest percentage of on-time departures
57% Newark Liberty
59% Chicago O'Hare
61% Seattle
61% Portland
62% San Francisco

Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics