(Photo credit: Isai Ramos via Unsplash.)
Traveling somewhere this holiday season? Of course you are.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was rated by USA Today Travel as one of the 10 worst days to travel in the United States – regardless of whether you’re driving or flying.
There's good news if you’re flying: According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, fewer than 6 percent of holiday trips are by air. Wednesday and Sunday are the high-volume days.
Driving? Not so much. Thanksgiving Day is the more heavily traveled day, and most of those trips are shorter car trips. In general, the average distance for a Thanksgiving trip is 214 miles – almost 50 miles shorter than the average trip taken any other time of year – and 44 percent of Thanksgiving trips are between 50 and 99 miles. Thursday-Saturday is the normal duration.
For Christmas and New Year’s trips the same pattern holds – lots of short road trips – with more variability built around the day of the week on which these holidays fall.
Regardless of whether you fly or drive this holiday season, here’s our compendium of holiday travel safety tips to help your travels go well.
Holiday Travel Tips
If you’ve decided that your best sort of holiday travel is a vacation getaway, first pick a direction, then use some easy tools to check for holiday travel deals. Apps like SkyScanner, TripIt, and PocketTravelConsultant are a great place to start, but if you really want to save on time and hassle, contact your local travel consultant. They know the best time to buy Christmas and Thanksgiving flights and book holiday travel, they have an array of winter-travel specials, and they can make sure that you're getting the right deal.
Remember: Not every holiday travel deal is a good deal! When booking winter vacations, read the fine print. A lot of last-minute deals, like cheap holiday flights, have to be paid in full and are non-refundable. Not all resorts/cruises are the right choice for families with children, or couples without. And don’t forget the logistics; if a flight to Europe requires you to switch from Heathrow to Gatwick between connecting flights, you might want a different option.
If you go all-in on long-distance holiday travel, here are some other tips to minimize the pain and maximize the fun.
Travel early in the day. Here’s your No. 1 winter-travel airport tip: Travelers are more likely to experience excessive delays from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. No one likes getting up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight, but if you start early the plane will most likely have spent the night in your airport, meaning you stand a break-even chance of getting out, and even if you don’t get out on that flight you have a decent shot at making it out on a subsequent flight. Realize that any weather anywhere will gradually slow the entire system as the day goes on. Do your flights early, and nap when you get to your destination.
Avoid certain airports (and not just LaGuardia). Surprisingly, the rate of flight delays generally is less during the holidays than at other times of the year … at most airports. According to Carto, the exceptions are Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, Seattle/Tacoma, Washington Dulles, San Francisco, and O’Hare. More than 40 percent of their Thanksgiving flights are delayed. If the scheduling works out, try Washington Reagan, San Jose, Chicago Midway, or PDX instead.
Make sure all passports are up-to-date. For most destinations, passports must be valid for at least six months from your return-home date. If you're traveling during the holidays, you may have to expedite your renewals (not cheap or fun) to get them back in time.
Stop or forward your mail/newspaper deliveries while you’re gone. More so than any other season, winter is a time when you don’t want to leave obvious signs that you’re not home. If you expect snow, have your driveway plowed while you’re away. Set lights (including Christmas lights) on a timer. Turn down your thermostat, but not drastically. Make sure your water pipes are wrapped with heat tape. Have a neighbor keep an eye on your home.
Add a pre-departure stay. If your flight to the Bahamas has to stop in Chicago because of a snowstorm, chances are your flight will be delayed. Especially when embarking on a cruise, add a pre-departure night or two to your trip, just in case of snow delays. (Travel insurance can also be a lifesaver in these situations. Depending on the policy you purchase, delays on the way to the airport may be covered, as well as flight delays and flight cancellations.)
Take care of your immune system. Traveling is always stressful on the body, but especially when switching through various climates. Stock up on eye drops, nose sprays, cough drops, cold medication, tissues, and more – including travel-sized items you can fit into your carryon. Should you lose the battle with that tickle in your throat, contact your travel-insurance carrier to help arrange a doctor’s visit.
Pack efficiently. Traveling from a warm climate to a cold one, and don’t want to throw on winter clothes for the plane ride? Buy a jacket, hat, and gloves after you land, and donate them to a local charity when you leave. Headed somewhere warm? If your resort/cruise ship offers laundry service, you might be able to leave a few sweaters at home. Otherwise, services like LuggageFree will transport heavy suitcases from your home to your hotel room and back. This service is especially great for odd-size items like skis, diving gear, and musical instruments. (Find more great packing tips in our complete guide to packing for travel.)
Reserve ahead. If you’re traveling during the holidays, make dinner reservations in advance. Not all restaurants will be open on the actual holidays and you want to make sure to have a table waiting for you, especially if you have dietary restrictions and allergies. Many restaurants serve set menus; you might want to review these ahead of time.
Make sure your mode of transportation can bear the weather. If you get a rental car, check for antifreeze, snow chains, ice scrapers and other winter-travel essentials. Just because it’s sunny when you pick up the car doesn’t mean the weather can’t change on you. This is especially true if you pick up a car in, say, Denver or Salt Lake City and then drive to the mountains.
Install the weather.com app on your phone. Add the cities you’re traveling through and track the weather a few days ahead of time so you know what to pack. Knowing the weather also will help you decide if you want to get up early to start exploring, or sleep in and let the plow trucks clear the roads. When heading to the tropics, install destination guides with daily event calendars to be in the know on festivals, celebrations and more.
Keep in mind that certain attractions might be closed on actual holidays. Check closures ahead of time and plan your itinerary accordingly.
Make your alternative plans early. Know your Plan B for getting to grandma’s before you leave. If your flights through Denver are cancelled, can you fly through a warm-weather hub to get where you’re going? If all the flights are grounded, can you catch a train? Ride a bus? Rent a car? If the Interstate is closed, what other roads can you take? If everything’s shut down, where are you going to stay? Answer these questions before you leave on your big trip, and if the inevitable happens, you’ll have your new roadmap all planned out.
Use travel assistance. If you find yourself in dire need of a Plan B, good travel assistance is invaluable. When we talk about buying travel insurance for a road trip, this is one of the big reasons why.
Cover your investment. Determine the right type of travel insurance for your trip. A quick getaway may only require flight protection like AirCare®; a full-blown vacation, particularly an international trip, needs more coverage, like the ExactCare® Line with its trip-cancellation, trip-interruption, medical, and evacuation benefits.
Speaking of medical coverage … Sick happens. The only thing worse than having the flu is having the flu on vacation. No one would voluntarily leave their own bed to be sick in a hotel room. Travel insurance can help you get the medical care you need, so you can get back to enjoying your trip! Also, having travel insurance means that you can tap into the insurer’s travel-assistance services to easily locate a pharmacy and purchase the medicine you need.
Consider not going home. As Bob Newhart reminds us, “Thanksgiving is an American holiday, Walt.” Many places that are not in the U.S. are actually quite affordable around the holidays, starting with Canada. Europe is a particularly good deal. If you’re not quite that adventuresome, the Orlando resorts aren’t as super-crowded for Thanksgiving as they will be later in the year, and even Disneyland is a reasonable option.
Winter Driving Tips
Take it seriously. Even though you’re prepared with your extra boots and new wiper blades, you still need to take winter-storm watches and warnings seriously, and avoid traveling during storms. No one’s doubting your ability to drive safely in snow, but what about the other drivers? And if you are the other driver, and not used to driving in winter weather, you’re a hazard to yourself and others – and the middle of a blizzard is not the time to learn how to properly brake on icy roads. In those circumstances, just stay home. Postpone your meetings and – yes – your vacations. Even if this is the time you were supposed to be in Bora Bora, if you get in an accident on the way to the airport, you’ll miss your flight anyway.
Be sure your car is in peak shape. Keep your tires inflated, your wiper blades clean, and your brakes and battery up to par. Always have enough antifreeze and wiper fluid. And above all, always have enough gas – no less than a half-tank, and a quarter-tank at the absolute minimum – so you can keep the motor running and the heat on if you get stuck.
Pack a winter survival kit. Take anything you might need if you become stranded, pack it in a duffel or tub and stick it in your trunk. Recommended items include:
- Food – granola-type bars are always good – and water
- Ice scraper, brush, and small shovel
- Tire chains
- Bag of sand or cat litter
- Blankets, boots, handwarmers, gloves, and extra winter clothes
- First-aid kit, small tool kit, pocket knife
- Flashlights and flares
- A spare, charged cellphone that can dial 911
- Jumper cables, tow rope, emergency tire sealant
- Extra batteries
- Any important medication
- Newspaper (can act as an insulator, a fire starter, or reading material)
Tell people where you’re going. If have to go out into the weather, tell someone where you’re going and the route you’re taking. And if you get stuck, here’s what you do:
- Use your phone to GPS your exact location, then call 911 and tell them where you are, who’s with you, and how much food, water and gas you have. If a lot of people are stranded, they’re going to give priority to people who are worse off.
- After calling 911, call a family member or a friend who can contact authorities if you don’t get home or they don’t hear from you in a specified amount of time.
- Stay put. Unless you are 200 percent certain you can get to safety within 15 minutes, do not venture out to look for help. Stay in your car and conserve your body heat.
- Signal to emergency vehicles you need help. If you have an emergency flag or a spare piece of fabric, attach it to your antenna or door handle. If it’s night, turn on an internal light. If it’s stopped snowing, prop up your hood. Let other vehicles know you’re in trouble.
- Wrap up in extra clothing, blankets, and anything else you have. Use those reusable bags you never remember to take into the grocery store or the newspapers in your winter survival kit. Your body heat is precious; focus on keeping it as close to your body as possible.
- Conserve gas. Turn on your car for about 10 minutes every hour, less if you’re staying warm, and crack a window while the car runs to prevent carbon-monoxide buildup.
- Keep your exhaust clear of snow and ice. Carbon monoxide is serious business, and if it isn’t flowing out of the exhaust, it’s going to end up in your car. Check the tailpipe every time you start your car, and if it’s plugged, clean it out.
- Stay hydrated. If you have to consume snow, melt it first. Eating snow can lower your core body temperature, and that’s not what you need while you’re stranded in the cold.
- Make your food last. Eat in moderation.
- Make any batteries last. Turn off your phone except to call for help. This is not the time to try beating that level of Candy Crush you’ve been stuck on for five weeks.
- Exercise in your car to keep warm. Flex your fingers and toes, rotate your arms, shake your legs, roll your shoulders and neck.
- Keep your seatbelt and hazards on. You may not be moving, but cars driving past you are, and they can easily run into you if they don’t see you.
If it’s stopped snowing and you want to get yourself unstuck, take this approach:
- When digging yourself out, go from top to bottom. Wipe snow off the roof, then the sides, then shovel out the tires, and finally shovel a path in the direction you want to go.
- Get crafty if you don’t have what you need. No scraper? Use a credit card. No shovel? Use that Frisbee in the trunk. No sand for traction? Use car mats or twigs.
- Turn your wheels from side to side. Drive back and forth a few times to get traction.
- Go slow. If your tires are spinning, giving it more gas will only dig you deeper.
- If you get out, keep going slow until you get to your destination. You just got unstuck; you don’t need to get stuck a second time.
Do everything the law allows – and recommends – and don’t do what they don’t recommend. If you're in an area where studded snow tires are legal, put ‘em on. If you’re driving on mountain roads and the sign says “Tire Chains Recommended,” put ‘em on. If you’re going to be tooling around International Falls or Fairbanks, install an engine-block heater. Also, if the sign by that mountain road says “Closed November-April,” don’t go. Because here’s a little secret: The highway department has four-wheel drive too, and they don’t use that road from November through April. Turn around, go back down the mountain, and take the long way. It’s faster than being stranded for 48 hours and helivacked off a mountain – without your SUV. You can come pick that up in May.
Take your time. You have more of it than you know. Many times when we’re traveling we think we have to be somewhere by a certain time, but it’s often a self-imposed deadline. Rushing things that shouldn’t be rushed to get somewhere at a time that matters only to you isn’t the best travel strategy. You really don’t want to discover your tires’ adhesion limits in the middle of a whiteout. Allow yourself lots of time to get where you’re going. If you overestimate the time needed and arrive early, consider it just another way of showing your family how much you’ve matured over the last 12 months.
Know that it’s going to be all right. When you drive across some of America’s snowiest roads, you often drive by sound. The centerline rumble strip tells you when you’re drifting too far towards the middle, and the rumble strip on the shoulder tells you when you’re heading toward the ditch. If you drift too far right you’ll hit a snowbank – but you might gently bounce off back onto the road. If you don’t, there are enough trucks about that you’ll be out in a jiffy. Just stepping back for a second, breathing deeply and saying to yourself, “It’s going to be all right,” is one of the most powerful remedies we have for travel stress. All you have to do is believe it.
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