What strategies do travel experts swear by when the airports and roads are at their busiest? We asked, and each shared their best piece of seasonal advice.
What’s your worst holiday travel nightmare? Sitting, delayed, in the airport for hours with only your smartphone and a pretzel to keep you company? Hearing your kids blast the Frozen soundtrack in the backseat for the fifth time while you’re stalled in gridlocked traffic? Or having a complete stress-induced meltdown that freaks out the hotel's front desk clerk, the bellhop, and the elderly couple in line behind you?
Don’t panic: BT has your back. We asked 11 of the world’s best-known travel experts—including an award-winning travel journalist, an airline miles and points obsessive, and a certain hotel heiress—for their single best tip for staying sane during the holiday travel crush. Read their advice, and you’ll be ready to glide through the crowds before you can say, “Serenity now!”
1. Fool your airline's touch-tone system into helping you first.
"Holiday travel means full flights, and that means that if a storm cancels your flight, you're in a mad race with everyone else to grab what very few seats are available on alternate flights, and you can get stranded for days. Rather than phoning the airline's jammed U.S. customer service line and getting stuck on hold for hours while the few available seats to your destination vaporize, call one of the airline's English-speaking overseas reservations numbers—say, in England, Germany, Australia, or Singapore. (You'll find these numbers on the airline's website. Here are American Airlines', for example, and here are United's.) Use Skype so the call is cheap." —Wendy Perrin, travel expert behind WendyPerrin.com and travel advocate at TripAdvisor
2. Crank up lighthearted music to stay zen.
"When I'm at the airport, which is mostly how I travel during this time of year, I carry my iPod filled with Christmas music. Unless I'm face-to-face with someone, I'll be wearing headphones listening to peaceful, relaxing songs of the season to keep me in the spirit and out of the craziness that can be holiday traveling. My smile—and when I choose to sing along—gets me funny looks, but it's well worth the trade-off." —Jack Maxwell, host of the Travel Channel's Booze Traveler
3. Forget Grandma. Do your own thing.
"Don't go home for the holidays! Your ability to stretch your dollar during the holidays will be better served going to places that need the tourism. For example, although very cold, upscale hotels for Chicago for New Year's Eve are currently seeing rock-bottom rates. During the holiday season, New York City, which is a mecca for shopping, offers some of the lowest hotel rates of the year. If you avoid the holidays altogether, Las Vegas currently has 4-star hotel rates at under $50 per night. Also, look at international city destinations. Travelzoo has seen deals for 4-star hotels for up to 50 percent off in Paris and Rome over the Christmas season, when many Europeans are headed to warmer destinations or staying home." -—Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo
4. When packing, choose your holiday outfits wisely. (Think wool or stretchy knits, not delicate silk or rayon.)
"Try and pack pieces that don't wrinkle. It will save you the headache of sending items to get pressed. Some hotels don't even offer that and have to send it off-site. Plus, it can get expensive." —Nicky Hilton, fashion designer, Hilton Hotels heiress, and author of 365 Style
5. Make like a vampire and attack your road trip at night.
"If you're planning a long drive on a big travel day, leave in the middle of the night and hit no traffic. I know it sounds crazy, but my brother's family does it every year on the day before Thanksgiving. This year they left the D.C. area at 1:52 a.m. and made it to my parents' house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at 9:23 a.m. That's about seven and a half hours, without speeding (much). They do it every year, and it always works—just drag the kids out of bed, put them to sleep in the car, and be sure there are lots of snacks and movies for when they wake up. I left New York City around 9 a.m., and it took me five and a half hours, almost two hours more than it should have. The only negative consequence is my brother needs a nap." —Seth Kugel, author of the New York Times Frugal Traveler column. He is currently on hiatus from his column and working on a YouTube series for Brazilian tourists who visit New York, Amigo Gringo.
6. Shut out the holiday cacophony—literally—for less than a dollar.
"Cheap foam earplugs. Whether it's at the airport with the 27 gate announcements that I don't need to hear or a mall where each store is in a battle of the bands competition with their piped music, earplugs don't block out all the noise, but they take the edge off and create a more calm place in my head." —Samantha Brown, Travel Channel host and AARP travel ambassador
7. Turn a delay into a mini vacation day.
"When you're traveling during the holidays and winter months, there's always a chance of weather delays or flight cancellations. If it happens to you, try to look at it as a good thing and embrace your newfound free time! Bring along that book you've been wanting to read, or pack your Kindle, iPad, or Nook so you can catch up on your favorite shows...or read the latest digital edition of Budget Travel magazine. I've been snowed in at airports a few times—eight hours in Newark, anyone?—and I even spent the night in the Dallas area during a nasty flight-cancelling blizzard. I used it as an opportunity to cash in my hotel rewards points, explore the area, and have an amazing Texas barbecue dinner in Grapevine! Try to think of it as a travel adventure." —Kaeli Conforti, digital editor at Budget Travel
8. Ship what you can before you leave. (That means you, giant wrapped gifts.)
"Travel light. Checking in luggage can add hours to your trip. When I'm traveling for the holidays, I ship my presents and bulky winter clothes a week ahead of time, and do the same thing when I return home. I miss lines at the airport check-in and don't have to wait for my luggage." —Zane Lamprey, host of the National Geographic Channel's Chug and creator of the Drinking Jacket
9. Stick it to the man! Ignore school schedules and travel during a "dead" week.
"Everyone will tell you the same advice: Get to the airport early. Allow plenty of time for flight connections. Try to take the first flight of the day to avoid delays. Here's how I survive holiday travel: I get to the airport late...very late. In fact, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two times of the year I don't travel. Instead, I take advantage of two 'dead' weeks each year—the week immediately following Thanksgiving and the week immediately following New Year's. There's a reason they are called dead weeks—no one is traveling! Result: No lines, no delays, better service, and greater discounts on all forms of travel. I know what you're thinking: 'You can't travel those weeks because the kids are in school.' Really? Do what my parents did with me. Talk with your kids' teachers, get them extra-credit assignments that directly relate to your dead-week trip, and then never let school interfere with their education. It's a win-win for all concerned." —Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News and host of public television's The Travel Detective
10. Raise a glass! It's 5 o'clock somewhere.
"Stuck in the airport? Airport bars can be surprisingly fun. Grab a drink and commiserate with fellow delayed travelers. Just don't get too comfortable. Travelers have been known to be so entertained they miss their flights. Happy travels!" —Darley Newman, host and producer of PBS's Equitrekking and AOL's Travels with Darley; contributing editor at Budget Travel
11. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
"My best tip to survive holiday travel is to be kind to everyone, leave plenty of time to get to your destination, and pack your patience." —John DiScala, editor in chief of Johnny Jet