Thursday, December 17, 2009

How to Avoid Holiday Travel Hell

I'm not traveling this holiday season. In fact, I rarely travel during any end-of-the-year holidays in any year, as that's the time when travel snafus are apt to be the worst. It is, as we know, the time of delayed and cancelled flights, traffic jams, rotten weather, heaving, sweating crowds in airports, congested skies and jam-packed planes idling on the tarmac. So, I feel for you if you are traveling next week or the week after.

There are some things you can do to lessen the stress, particularly if, like many travelers, you will be flying to see loved ones or to take that special holiday vacation. Here are things that work for me, not just at holiday time, but anytime:

Don't check your luggage. Not any. Not if you can help it. More airlines charging more money for baggage checking fees this year - the fees are a revenue stream and the airlines are still losing money - make this an expensive proposition. Pack smart, pack light and carry it on if you can. Here's a bonus: If you haven't checked anything, you can skip out of those boring waits at the baggage carousel, leave the airport and be on your merry way.

Got presents? Consider shipping them ahead. If you do put gifts in your checked luggage or carry gifts with you for storage in the overhead bin, don't wrap them. Airport security may make you take off all those pretty ribbons and bows so they can peer inside.

Speaking of security, if you are traveling in the United States, the Transportation Security Administration - in a bid to cut down on 'false-positives' on the terrorist watch-list - is phasing in a new program called Secure Flight. The TSA now wants the name on your boarding pass to match the name on your identification - driver's license, passport, whatever - exactly, letter by letter. It's not being enforced strictly yet, but don't take any chances - check your primary ID and make sure you make your flight reservation under the exact same name. Is your frequent flier enrollment under even a slightly different name? Go back and correct it.

Check in online and print out your boarding pass. It will make you less likely to be involuntarily bumped if the flight is overbooked; latecomers who haven't checked-in get bumped first.

Sign up for flight alerts to your mobile device or computer. Most airlines will give you a heads up about changes, as will some commercial booking sites and services, like and, in the form of a text message or an e-mail.

If your flight is long-delayed or cancelled, know your rights. If it's the carrier's fault - an aircraft mechanical failure, say - the airline must issue you a cash stipend, not a travel voucher. The errant airline is also responsible for helping find you a hotel room if necessary and ponying up some meal money. If it's not the airline's fault - heavy weather, say - they owe you nothing.

If they ask for volunteers to take a later flight, make sure it's not standby. If you are confirmed on the next scheduled flight - and the next flight is soon or at least that same day - fine. Want to check flight schedules yourself, to review your options? I like, which presents airline flight schedules.

Stuck in the airport for an appallingly long time? If you don't have access to a first-or business-class lounge, buy a day pass to an airport lounge. Time passes faster and more pleasantly when you have snacks and drinks and a decent chair to sit in.

Oh, another thing: it may sound obvious, but make sure you have the phone numbers for your airline, several big hotel brands and your travel agent, if you used one. Program the contact numbers into your mobile device, or do it the time-honored way: Write them down.

Finally, if things go badly anyway, consider reporting the problem to regulatory authorities. In the U.S., consumer complaints can be sent to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division.


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