Thankfully National Geographic Contributing Editor, Heather Greenwood Davis, has some tips to make your trip a whole lot easier.
Timing is everything
There are some general rules of thumb:
- Be flexible with your dates: Often people are determined to get there on very specific dates. If you are okay with flying on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve you’ll likely find cheaper options. If you can book extra time off ahead of the holidays or come back after the rush you’ll find better deals.
- Use sites that let you play with the dates you’re flying to source your options. And then don’t wait. If you see something that works for you, snap it up.
- Play with smaller airports instead of the major hubs
- Be flexible with your destination. If you’re flexible with where you go, you can broaden your idea of what a holiday has to look like. Avoid spots that are super popular like Florida and consider destinations with big travel hubs, like Atlanta.
- As for where to travel, you should think about cold-weather places as opposed to going down South like so many others. There’s so many beautiful winter destinations like Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland, which is just north of the Arctic Circle, and is widely considered Christmas headquarters because of its ties to the legend of Santa Claus. There are even seasonal positions available as elf workers in Santa’s post office. There’s also the Nuremberg Christmas Market in Germany. And several festive destinations in Iceland and France that, if you book early enough, are a lot cheaper than hotter destinations. In general, earlier is always better – that is going to offer you more choice in terms of destinations and generally better prices.
Again, holidays are no time to wait for the last-minute option especially if you’re determined to get there on a specific day or traveling with more than yourself. Your best bets are usually found before mid- October.
Last minute travel deals
The best way to protect yourself in any shopping at this time of year is to have a sense of what the regular fares look like. Before you click purchase on that deal that popped into your mailbox, take a minute to research what regular fares look like to judge whether it’s really a deal. Airline glitch deals can be great bargains or leave you in the lurch so approach with caution. There are some sites I love for last minute deals including TravelZoo. I trust what they do because I’ve used them without issue. Get similar recommendations for friends and family. Wherever you’re purchasing online, don’t forget to read the fine print! Another great way to protect yourself? Reach out to a travel agent. They are not only going to be able to confirm whether the deal is legit, they might be able to match it, offer additional incentives or beat it.
Here is where I think you need to pay for convenience. Sometimes the little things make all the difference in how stressful a trip feels. Consider purchasing into one of the trusted traveler programs. Nexus will cost you $50 per year per person. Not waiting in that line that is snaking around the airport? Priceless. Ditto for things like lounge access or reasonable upgrades on flight seats or direct flights. Weigh the years those situations take off your life against the cost involved and you may find you come out on the side of opening your wallet. And always check-in online and choose your seats at least 24 hours in advance – I actually set a calendar alert for this. Why add another line to your life?
Delays aren’t completely avoidable but we can take what we know and at least minimize our risks when they do. A few tips:
- Get the app for the airline you’re flying and sign up for alerts. Weather is rarely a surprise and you’ll be one of the first to know if there’s a chance your flight is in trouble. Often its updated before the screens in the airport and that’ll give you a jump on fellow passengers who are waiting to hear the update from a live person behind the counter.
- Build in time during layovers. I was stranged in Mexico one Christmas because of a tight connection and ended up spending more than $2,000 to get on our way again. Remember those tight connections can be a problem if you’re switching airlines or bought each leg of your ticket from a separate vendor.
- Opt for direct flights wherever possible but if you have to connect, pick warm weather spots over cooler ones. Denver is more likely to have winter weather issues than Miami.
- Carry-on only will mean you can take the offer of a new flight or switch easily (sometimes without even getting in a line at the airport). Plus, it will make your airport manoeuvering easier and mean you have a hand free for the kids or your coffee.
- Book early flights. I’ve found that first flights out are less likely to be delayed but often staffing can be slim. Print that boarding pass at home and keep your real person needs at the airport to a minimum.
Travelling with kids
- Pack your carry-on as if a delay will happen. Save some of the travel toys you’re bringing for in-air entertainment as emergency-use only options. (think new colouring book with their favourite character) In a pinch you can always visit the airport shops and buy a book or toy for them. It’ll be cheaper than losing your mind.
- Check out your airports ahead of time – many have play areas. Chicago has a dinosaur, for example. Some airports in southeast Asia offer tours for long layovers or movie theaters.
- Games like eye spy as you’re walking can go a long way. Try to not just sit and wait if you can avoid it. You want to break up the monotomy of a long wait.
When you lose your luggage
It’s one of the reasons you’re better off either going carry on only or sending things ahead or shopping when you’re in destination. And think twice before spending all that time and effort wrapping your gifts. If TSA needs in, they aren’t going to gently re-wrap it for you. With presents for family that lives with or close to you, you might want to consider leaving the gifts at home and getting creative in destination by wrapping a photo of that bike you bought or offering a gift certificate for the play station you have at home. If you have to bring the expensive gifts with you and you have to check them, look into your travel insurance to see how much will be covered if lost or stolen.
The other luggage issue to consider is the gifts you receive. Ask friends and family to keep in mind your luggage limits when gifting you or you may be paying hefty bag fees to get that clock you hate home.
Driving vs. Flying
Road conditions might prove more treacherous and at least if you’re delayed in your home airport you can turn around and go home. If it happens on route, it could be a bigger issue. If you are going to drive take the time ahead of time to make sure the car is ready for the road. Think: Gas the night before, oil change up to date, roadside emergency bag in the trunk, etc. And if you’re traveling with kids you’ll want to be realistic about the drive. Do they love road trips or are you going to be void of any holiday spirit by the time you arrive?
- On any given day, you’re juggling a million things. Holidays make it worse! Now you’re thinking about who to buy gifts and what to bring to dinner and whether your chipped dinnerware is going to get a raised eyebrow from your mother in law. Can anyone blame you for forgetting to check the expiration date on your passport? (I’ve done it) Or for booking the flight to the wrong airport? (I’ve done that, too) The answer to that: Yes, yes, they can. So, skip the drama by using the tools on your computer or phone to keep you up to date.
- If ever there was a time for you to join Team Carry-on, this is it. Ship the gifts, have retailers deliver them to a trusted friend near your destination or buy them when you get there.
- Put expiry dates in your calendar early! Remember that some destinations demand at least six months of validity on a passport, some countries require visas and others say you have to have a certain number of pages available in your passport.
- You may need to get travel vaccinations and those may require some lead time. It may be time to – gasp – delegate and then remember who you delegated to. The earlier you are thinking about these things and the better able you are to keep track of them, the less stressed you’ll be.
- Want to make sure you don’t forget your niece’s special gift? Ship it! Have retailers deliver them to a trusted friend near your destination or buy them when you get there. Some local spots will also wrap it for you – ask.