How to Survive Holiday 2011 Travel

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BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Holiday travelers may take comfort in knowing Christmas comes once a year, but their nerves are no less frayed by that single trip.

Roughly 34% of Americans plan to travel this Christmas and 16% plan to travel for New Year's, according to travel site TripAdvisor's 2011 holiday survey. That's up from 32% last Christmas and 13% from New Year's. While 11% of those travelers are just going to check out the decorations and window displays in another city and 18% plan to spend the holidays beachside in a southern latitude, 59% plan to visit family and friends.

Not surprisingly, 51% expect to be stressed out by the experience. Angst over airline cancellations (experienced by 22% of anxious travelers), inclement weather (21%), travel costs (15%), overcrowded airports (11%) and traffic snarls (8%) is making this just about the least wonderful time of year for anyone who has to leave home this holiday. Those fears aren't just coming from cynical holiday Scrooges, but from travelers haunted by past holiday hassles -- including 29% who've sat through traffic jams, 23% who've had flights cancelled, 14% who've lost their luggage, 8% who've missed a flight and another 8% who just forgot to pack the presents.

There are a couple of ways travelers can deal with it. One is for the 46% of holiday travelers flying this year to hit the booze on the drink cart, as 8% already plan to. Another option is to just take a sleeping pill, zonk out and let someone else steer, as 4% of travelers will during their holiday flights (hopefully not with a cocktail). A slightly simpler and less self-destructive plan being implemented by 47% of travelers is to fly during off-peak hours.

"When you're driving, leaving very early in the morning or very late at night can make a huge difference in the amount of time you spend on the road," says Josey Miller, travel expert for TripAdvisor. "When you're flying, try to book a flight that leaves really early in the morning, like the 6:30 a.m. flight, because airlines won't have had a chance at that time to get behind in their schedule and you're less likely to be delayed."

For those flying to their holiday destinations, keeping flying dates flexible also helps take the edge off. The editors of travel Web site Travelocity say travelers can save as much as $230 for a round-trip ticket just by adjusting their itineraries by a couple of days and traveling on Dec. 23 or 24. They'll need that extra cash after American Airlines (Stock Quote: AMR), United (Stock Quote: UAL), Delta (Stock Quote: DAL) and U.S. Airways (Stock Quote: LCC) tack on holiday peak-travel surcharges, as they have since at least 2009. American, United and Delta are asking passengers to pony up an extra $10 for flights on Thursday, Dec. 22; $20 for Friday, Dec. 23; and $30 apiece for Monday, Dec. 26, and Jan. 3. That's actually a break from the dozen holiday surcharge dates each of those airlines scheduled last year.

"A lot of people, for Thanksgiving, were under the misapprehension that the day before Thanksgiving was the busiest travel day of the holiday weekend," Miller says. "It historically has been, but enough people caught on to it that Thanksgiving Day itself became the top travel day of the holiday weekend, so I hesitate to say that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are the best days to fly."

U.S. Airways only worsens frazzled travelers' headaches by charging $10 for flights on Friday, Dec. 16; $20 for flights on Dec. 17-22, Dec. 27-29 and Dec. 31; $30 for Friday, Dec. 30; and a whopping $50 for Friday, Dec. 23. This is on top of the $20 extra per ticket each of the four major airlines and Continental tacked on during airfare hikes in October and the more than $80 per ticket those airlines have added through 10 successful price hikes since Jan. 1, according to travel site FareCompare Chief Executive Rick Seaney. Though it would have been much worse if seven proposed price hikes hadn't failed, the airlines hadn't tried an October fare hike since 2007.

As it stands, average domestic airfare for Christmas is up about 5% over last year while the average international ticket price has jumped 7%, according to Travelocity. Holiday travelers can expect to pay $406 on average for a domestic round-trip ticket and $916 for the average international round-trip ticket, and those price aren't going down as the holidays approach.

"Travelers should avoid Monday, Dec. 19, departures and Friday, Dec. 30, returns over the Christmas travel period -- the most expensive travel schedule ($495)," says Melissa Klurman, contributing editor for Travelocity. "The cheapest average round-trip tickets ($262) that we're seeing are for departures on Christmas Day returning the day after Christmas, but departing on the 24th or 25th and returning on or before the 29th will save you as much as $234." 

Pooling resources and giving a family member or loved one some leftover airline miles to help pay for their ticket often helps reduce the burden as well. Those miles go a much longer way when the person who earns them buys the gift ticket themselves, TripAdvisor's Miller warns. Taking the temporary hit instead of just transferring the miles ensures fees won't be paid twice for the same trip.

Handling time- and patience-consuming delays once those flights have been booked requires slightly more effort. FareCompare recommends travelers expand their already slim margin for error by printing out tickets at home, packing only a carry-on if possible, downloading an airline app to a smartphone or tablet to check on a flight's status, checking the weather before leaving, leaving early and wearing slip-on shoes and leaving belts, keys and other metal items in the carry-on to speed through security.

If your flight suddenly has that nasty red "delayed" indicator beside it on the departures board, TripAdvisor recommends simultaneously getting in line at the airport to talk to a gate or ticket agent to see what your options are for rebooking and calling the 800 number of your airline to speak with a representative over the phone.

In the event you're stuck there for a while but have someone with you to handle some of the legwork, have them make a reservation at the airport hotel while you wait. To avoid sleeping at the gate when those airport hotels inevitably book up, Travelocity recommends finding a hotel farther from the airport that still has airport transportation. Getting a decent night's sleep will make it much easier to jump on the plane the next day, throw on some noise-canceling headphones and settle in with a book to keep disturbances to a minimum, as FareCompare recommends.

Even getting home for the holidays doesn't ensure a happy stay ahead. About 14% of the edgy holiday travelers from TripAdvisor's survey think paying for a hotel room, bed and breakfast or vacation rental is their best option for holding it together this season. Usually the best bet for travelers booking this late in the game is a hotel and flight package, which Travelocity says can cut costs by as much as $525. TripAdvisor, meanwhile, says a good consumer should still poke around for hidden a la carte deals.

"I'd also encourage you to do the math," TripAdvisor's Miller says. "Don't only research packages, but research your hotel and flight separately so that way you can see if there are combinations that can save you more money."

The simple fact is that there are far too many people on the roads and in the sky during the holiday season to guarantee a stress-free trip. Those who are out there are so freaked out about the holiday that 23% buy last-minute gifts in the airport to pad their present piles. Coincidentally, 23% think travelers are a lot more ornery than usual around this time of year.

There's only so much a traveler can control, which means even the most well-executed holiday trip can become as grating as Natalie Wood's voice after the 18th showing of Miracle on 34th Street in two days. Accepting that can keep travelers more stress-free than any headphones, heavy drinking or high-powered knockout pills.

"You basically have to manage your expectations, because it's going to be a busy time," Miller says. "But if you go into it expecting big delays and a lot of stress and it doesn't end up being that bad, you'll be thrilled."

 

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