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Thanksgiving travel mishaps to avoid

“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is the gold standard for films depicting holiday travel madness. But there are some teachable moments within the zaniness.
Image: 1987's \"Planes, Trains and Automobiles\"
There are some teachable moments within the zaniness that is “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Paramount
/ Source: contributor

Imagine you’re Steve Martin. You’re desperately trying to rush off to the airport to catch a flight from New York to Chicago so you can get home in time to be with your family for Thanksgiving. But first John Candy steals your cab, then he crams in next to you in a crowded coach seat, then he continues to add to your travel woes for about 90 minutes with an incessant stream of mishaps, gaffes and exercises in very poor judgment.

I’m referring, of course, to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” the gold standard for films depicting holiday travel madness. Candy’s character, Del Griffith, is a shower curtain ring salesman lugging a large trunk who becomes the unwanted travel companion to Martin’s Neal Page, a marketing executive. Del unintentionally torments Neal with cigarette smoke, spilled beer, foot odor, reckless driving, nonstop obnoxious conversation and, of course, a highly uncomfortable situation in a hotel bed that causes Martin to exclaim, “Those aren’t pillows!”

Just getting through a viewing of the 1987 John Hughes-directed classic requires a strong survival instinct coupled with a sturdy gut to withstand the laughter. But there are some teachable moments within the zaniness.

Naturally, times have changed. This film was made long before 9/11, the Transportation Security Administration and enhanced pat downs. Today, if Neal had had a smartphone, he could have just downloaded a Del-erasing app, or booked a limo from the middle of a cornfield. But alas, 1987 was even pre-Internet, or at least for the general public, so there was no escaping the hell of Del.

Here are six of the top miscues made by our heroes in that film, and advice on how you can avoid them by some of the top travel writers in the business:

  • In one scene, the two are sharing a hotel room when a burglar sneaks in and steals all their cash. Question: Do people still use travelers’ checks, and is it wise to do so?

“It’s so rare now because of the use of a bank card or debit card,” said David Lytle, editorial director of

“The general rule right now,” said veteran travel writer Carole Terwilliger Meyers, “is don’t use travelers’ checks because many places no longer accept them BECAUSE not many people still use them.”

Said writer Beth Blair: “The popularity of ATMs has helped travelers reduce the amount of cash they need to carry while traveling, but even then it’s best for travelers to split their cash and not carry it all in one place.”

  • The boys have an unfortunate incident in which their rented car catches fire and their credit cards are burned and melted. Candy, for instance, only has a credit card from Chalmers Big and Tall Men’s Shop, a seven-outlet chain in the Pacific Northwest. What is the minimum number of credit cards you should bring on a trip, and which ones?

“I always have three cards in my wallet,” explained author Evelyn Kanter. “American Express, for large expenses, and for their excellent complaint resolution services after you get back, and a Visa and a MasterCard for those smaller businesses that don’t like to pay the Amex service charge.”

Said Lytle: “I want to take a lot. I want to take more than two, and I wouldn’t keep them all in the same place. I travel with copies of my passport and driver’s license, and I send copies in an e-mail to myself, along with information about my credit card companies on a secure g-mail. I use credit cards for hotels, flights, big expenses. If you’re in Florence, let’s say, and you buy a leather jacket, you should use a credit card because it gives you some consumer protection.”

  • Martin’s Neal had over $700 in his wallet when he was robbed. How much cash is a wise amount to carry on you?

“I find that I take less and less cash when I travel,” noted Susan Breslow, who writes about honeymoon getaways for “It’s not because I’m afraid I’ll get robbed, but I like to have a record of a purchase. I use cash to get from home to the airport, and from the airport to home, and also for tips. I would say $200 to $300 is plenty.”

Said Meyers: “I feel comfortable with about $200, and I do keep it all on me. I figure I can afford to lose that much if worse comes to worse. I am also careful not to show my money to anyone.”

  • There is a scene early on in which Neal races to catch his flight and boards just in the nick of time. But a brutally cold flight attendant says that, even though he is ticketed in first class, he’ll have to sit in coach because the airline gave away his first-class seat. During the busy holidays, how soon should you get to the airport to make sure that you receive the seat you were assigned?

“Today, check-in should start at home, or at the hotel,” Blair said. “It’s important that travelers attempt to check in online as soon as possible, usually 24 hours before the flight departs. As for in-person, airlines limit flight check-in to only a couple of hours before departure. I recommend passengers contact the airline to see what time they start checking in for flights, then arrive 15 to 30 minutes before that to ensure they’re first in line.”

“Airlines do overbook,” Lytle said. “I think you’ll have a much bigger argument if you paid for a first-class ticket and it isn’t available. It’s rare that you’ll lose a seat if you’re checked in. You’re not late until the gates are closed.

“If you paid for a seat, you can stand there and fight, and there are security issues in airports now that, if you get on the wrong side of the gate agent, they might consider you more than just an angry customer.”

Breslow recommends getting to the airport early. “I would say get there two hours ahead of the boarding time, which is a half hour before departure.”

  • The “Cars” aspect of the movie’s title involves rentals. And naturally, around Thanksgiving, if you need one in a hurry, you may have a problem.  If you find yourself needing a rental car at the busiest travel times like holidays, are there any strategies to employ at the last minute that will help you get one?

“In the age of smartphones, if people have them, there are apps for booking sites,” Lytle said. “It’s always a great idea, if you don’t have a smartphone, to carry contact information for rental car companies. If you have a smartphone, you can use something like, which is my favorite. It’s an aggregator of deals, and it will connect you to any rental cars. Also, you’ll always pay a higher rate at airports, so if you can take a cab to another car rental location, you often can find a car there.”

Blair concurred: “Looking to off-site (away from the airport) car rental agencies are a terrific way to find last-minute rentals.”

  • Neal is taken out to a rental car parking lot. When he gets there, he finds an empty space where his car was supposed to be. He throws a fit and tosses away his rental car agreement, which turns out to be a large mistake. Is it important to hold onto it when everything nowadays is stored in a computer anyway?

“I keep that stuff for a year anyway. You never know what dispute may arise, a dent or a scratch,” Lytle said. “With cameras on smartphones now, I take a picture of all four sides of a car before I ever get into it. Also it’s important to keep the contract. A lot of cars have a GPS, so they know where you’ve gone. You could suddenly go somewhere that puts you in violation of your contract. There’s a lot of fine print in a car rental agreement.”

“Absolutely (keep it)!” Meyers said. “Never trust a car rental company or a computer. And nowadays you need to take before and after pictures of the car as well.”

“Of course hold on to the rental agreement, and not just until you return the car,” Kanter said.  “At return, you’ll want to check for a different daily or weekly rental charge. For example, if you were upgraded to a full-size because they ran out of compacts or mid-sizes, you should be charged for what is on your original reservation, not for the size they gave you.

“Ditto, keep the statement until you receive your credit card statement a few weeks later, again, to see if any charges have been added.  A new scam (or perhaps an old one) is for the rental car company to charge you for damage long after you’ve returned the car.  Be sure the vehicle is checked for damage — a scratch on the bumper, a ding on the windshield, or worse — and that a rental company employee signs to verify what the damage is, or is not.”

And last, but certainly not least: The film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” above all else, suggests that if you open up, you just might make an unlikely friend in unexpected circumstances. Is it reasonable to expect to make a new friend during holiday travel?

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Breslow said.

“I think it’s entirely possible,” Lytle said. “I still have faith in mankind. I think people can approach the world with cautious optimism.”