Holiday travel

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Ten ways to make it as jolly as possible

Almost everyone wants to go somewhere over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and/or New Year's--and that's the problem. We've got some answers:

1. Book early. Like, now for Christmas and New Years.

2. It's standard travel advice: Be flexible. The lowest prices will be on flights very early or late in the day, and morning routes are best for avoiding delays. Flying on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's Day usually costs far less than on busy days before or after the holidays themselves.

3. Unless a connecting flight costs a lot less, go nonstop. If a connection is necessary, try to fly through a southern hub, such as Dallas, Charlotte, or Phoenix, where you can at least eliminate weather as a problem. A layover in Chicago, Detroit, or Minneapolis raises the probability of getting held up because of a storm. 

4. Thinking about a resort getaway? The year's highest rates kick in over the Christmas/New Year's holidays at ski and beach resorts. Shifting your trip to before or after this period, even by a day or two, can reduce costs significantly.

5. Airport parking lots get filled up around the holidays, so use public transportation. If you must drive, consider a private parking lot near the airport: They'll shuttle you to and from the terminal, and they let you book in advance so you won't have to worry about finding a space. (Try carparknet.com, airportparkingreservations.com, airportdiscountparking.com, or parkingaccess.com.) People who live far from an airport and have an early flight might want to stay at an airport hotel the night before; some allow you to park your car at the hotel until you return (check parksleepfly.com).

6. Bringing presents on your flight? Don't wrap them. All luggage--gifts included--might be examined by security. Keep expensive or fragile items in your carry-on to cut down on the chances that they'll be damaged or stolen. There has been a serious rash of thefts recently.

7. Check out new check-in procedures. Many airlines' websites now make it possible for passengers to print out bar-coded boarding passes at home. There are also options at the airport. If you have luggage to check, use a curbside skycap; some airlines let them issue boarding passes as well. Inside the terminal, look for a self-service check-in kiosk, where you can quickly get your boarding pass and sometimes check your luggage.

8. Worried about long security lines? The Transportation Security Administration's website, tsa.gov, allows travelers to scope out how long waits are at about 450 U.S. airports. You search by airport, day of the week, and time of day. The problem is that the waits listed are averages and don't really reflect how long screening will take on, say, the day before Thanksgiving. To get around this glitch, look up an airport's wait times on what's usually the busiest travel period--Friday evenings--and assume that it'll take at least that long during the holidays.

9. Confirm your car reservation. Car-rental outfits figure on a no-show rate of 20 percent, allowing them to overbook. The result is that sometimes there are too many people and too few cars. To avoid being the one without wheels, try to arrive at the rental counter in late morning or early afternoon, when the lot is most likely to be full. Calling to confirm your reservation before you arrive lets them know that you won't be a no-show. Also, inquire ahead of time about express check-in programs so you can skip the lines. The fee to join might just beat the time you'd spend waiting.

10. Look into business hotels. Over the holidays, you'll find low rates at classy city and suburban hotels that normally depend on business travelers. Families should consider all-suite hotels or long-stay hotels, which have more room and good holiday prices.

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