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If you’re one of the millions of Americans that are going to be traveling over the December holiday season and New Year’s, the best present we can give you is a platter heaped with holiday travel safety tips.
Here’s why. Last year, according to the American Automobile Association:
Between Dec. 23 and Jan. 1, 97.4 million Americans traveled by car, 4.7 million by air
And wouldn’t you know: Many of those travelers had problems.
- Almost 20 percent of flights arrived late in December 2017
- More than 5,300 flights were cancelled (source: the DOT’s Air Traffic Consumer Reports)
- More than 1.2 million travelers had an issue on the road over the holidays (again, according to AAA).
Ouch. Well, just in time for your holiday road trip or flight, here are 2018’s 25 best holiday travel safety tips, with some special pro tips sprinkled in. Happy holiday travels!
1. TRAVEL EARLY IN THE DAY
Here’s your No. 1 holiday air-travel 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 an early start means your plane probably spent the night in your airport and you stand a break-even chance of getting out on your scheduled flight or on a subsequent flight.
The logistics of heavy weather accumulate. As the day progresses, planes are more likely never to arrive, or to be put into the back of long lines for takeoff or landing.
Don’t get caught. Do your flights early, and nap when you get to your destination.
2. CHOOSE YOUR AIRPORT CAREFULLY
You can short-circuit some holiday flight issues by carefully choosing your departure airport.
Some airports get much worse for delays and cancellations as the day progresses. Others stay relatively constant.
In December 2017, the airports with on-time rates that deteriorated the most as the day went on were (from most deterioration to least, per the DOT’s Air Traffic Consumer Reports):
New York Kennedy
See a pattern? These airports are either the secondary airport in a major market, an East Coast airport subject to turbulent weather, or a primary destination for those East Coast airports.
Contrast that with the airports with fairly stable on-time performances:
Salt Lake City
Most of these airports are either on the West Coast, in areas where people know how to handle snow, or otherwise excluded from the Northeast-to-Florida corridor.
Pro Tip: If you’re flying to Florida this winter, consider flights that go through Atlanta, Washington, or Charlotte.
3. CONTACT YOUR AIRLINE
Individual airlines – not airports – decide which flights are cancelled if there’s bad weather. (However, local airport authorities decide whether to close an airport.)
Check with your airline before arriving at the airport for the most up-to-date flight information, and consult your airline during bad weather if you need to change your itinerary.
And look on the bright side: When the weather gets really bad, airlines often offer relaxed change fees for travelers flying to or from affected cities.
4. REBOOK STRATEGICALLY
If you have to change your itinerary, the easiest way is through an airline website or mobile app.
You can also rebook via the airline’s international service numbers. (You’ll find them on an airline’s international-contact webpage.)
Pro Tip: Crises tend to be limited geographically, so calling another country is a reliable shortcut to an agent. Use Skype to sidestep calling fees and prioritize English-speaking countries like the U.K., Australia, and Singapore.
Another Pro Tip: Agents in airport lounges often can do more than the average customer-service rep. So if you’re already at the airport, get to the lounge—even if that means buying a day pass.
5. DON’T WRAP GIFTS
As the TSA notes, “We’re not the Heat Miser; however, we might have to unwrap gifts. If there’s something in the gift that needs to be inspected, we may have to open it. Our officers try their best not to mangle the gift wrap, but it’s not a guarantee.”
Pro Tip: Ship your gifts or wrap them once you get to your destination.
6. ADD A PRE-DEPARTURE STAY
Especially when embarking on a holiday cruise, add a pre-departure night or two to your trip, in case of weather delays. A couple days in Miami never hurt anyone – and they could save your vacation.
7. CHOOSE YOUR DESTINATION CREATIVELY
Spur-of-the-moment deals are common around the holidays. Keep your eyes open and a bag packed, and let a destination choose you.
As travel writer and blogger Christine Krzyszton notes, when you do it this way “you won’t be spending top dollar to have the same experience year after year, and you’ll be getting much more value.”
Pro Tip: Start your search at www.kayak.com/explore or Google Flights. “Just plug in the three-letter code for your preferred departure airport,” Krzyszton says, “and an entire world map populated with the best airfare deals will pop up.”
And who knows? You might find flying to Europe for the holidays is cheaper than flying to Florida.
8. CHECK YOUR PASSPORT
Before making plans to go anywhere, check your passport. For most destinations, passports must be valid for at least six months from your return-home date.
If you're traveling during the holidays and have a potentially out-of-date passport, you may have to expedite your renewals (not cheap) to get them back in time.
9. BE CAREFUL OUT THERE
“People actually tend to be a little more careful driving in the winter than in the summer, primarily because the elements are right there in your face,” according to Kristine D’Arbelles, senior public-affairs manager of the Canadian Automobile Association, the winter-driving authority.
Still, that’s no reason to take a lackadaisical approach.
Pro Tip: Cut your speed by one-third on wet roads and by one-half or more on snow-packed roads. If you’d normally go 60 miles an hour on dry pavement, reduce your speed to 40 on a wet road, and 30 on a snow-packed road.
10. TAKE IT SERIOUSLY
Take winter-storm watches and warnings seriously.
“However, just because you see a winter-storm warning that doesn’t mean you have to lock the doors and barricade yourself inside,” D’Arbelles says. “It just means you have to change your mentality about getting to your location, and add a few things to your trip.”
D’Arbelles recommends you add in extra time, be more aware of the vehicles around you, and limit your in-car distractions.
“I can’t always control when my three-year-old son is yelling my name from the back seat,” D’Arbelles says, “but I can control not having my cell phone in front of me, and I can set up my GPS before I leave.”
11. PREPARE YOUR CAR
Here’s your pre-departure checklist:
- Keep your tires inflated, your wiper blades clean, and your brakes and battery up to par.
- Have your battery checked before winter hits. The No. 1 cause of auto issues in cold weather is a dead battery.
- Pack a gallon of antifreeze and a couple gallons of windshield-washer fluid rated for sub-zero temperatures.
- If you're in an area where studded snow tires are legal, put them on. If you’re driving on mountain roads and the sign says “Tire Chains Recommended,” get yourself some tire chains. If you’re going to be tooling around Fairbanks, install an engine-block heater.
- Always have enough gas – no less than a half-tank – so you can keep the motor running and the heat on if you get stuck.
Most of this applies to rental cars, too.
12. WATCH THOSE CORNERS
It always seems that the worst weather hits the most treacherous mountain roads. If you’re climbing north out of Knoxville and the weather turns, here’s what D’Arbelles recommends:
Reduce your speed: Many times when you’re driving in the mountains you don’t know what’s on the other side of a curve or over the crest of a hill. Take it easy, but always be ready to react.
Take curves very carefully: “If you’re winding around the side of a mountain, take corners extremely slow, especially if there’s low visibility,” D’Arbelles says. “If you’re in the outside lane, take curves a little bit wider, just in case someone’s coming around the corner a little too fast, and if you’re in the inside lane, take it a little sharper, just to leave that extra space for anyone coming around the corner.”
Look ahead: Look down the road when you have the chance. Try to anticipate problems before they happen. Note the position of trucks and their behavior. This is particularly important when roads are icy.
13. PACK A SURVIVAL KIT
“You should definitely pack a winter emergency kit,” D’Arbelles reminds us. It’s easy; fill a bag, duffel or tub with anything you might need if you become stranded. Recommended items include:
- Food (e.g., granola bars) and water
- Ice scraper and brush – two of each, preferably (“because one always breaks,” per D’Arbelles)
- A small shovel
- Tire chains
- Sand or cat litter – but not salt, as that can damage your car
- Blankets, boots, handwarmers, gloves, socks, and extra winter clothes
- First-aid kit, small tool kit, pocket knife
- Flashlights, flares, and/or reflective triangles
- A charged cellphone that can dial 911
- Jumper cables, tow rope, emergency tire sealant
- Extra batteries
- Newspaper (insulator, fire starter, or reading material)
“Depending on how big your car is, this emergency kit may take up half your trunk,” D’Arbelles says. “You have to pick and choose what is most important for you.”
14. TELL PEOPLE WHERE YOU’RE GOING
If you have to go out, tell someone where you’re going and the route you’re taking. And if you get stuck:
- 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 lots of people are stranded, they’ll give priority to those who are worse off.
- Call a family member or friend after calling 911. Have them 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 for help. Stay in your car and conserve body heat.
- Signal to emergency vehicles. 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.
- Wrap up in extra clothing, blankets, and anything else you have. Use bags, newspapers – anything. Your body heat is precious; focus on keeping it close to your body.
- 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. Carbon monoxide is serious, and if it isn’t flowing out of the exhaust, it’s going into 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 when you’re cold.
- Make your food last. Eat in moderation.
- Make batteries last. Turn off your phone except to call for help. Charge your phone every opportunity you can – for instance, when you turn on your car 10 minutes an hour to keep warm.
- Entertain, but don’t overdo it. If you’re traveling with children, keep digital entertainment options on hand and charged. Ration screen time as much as your sanity will allow.
- Exercise in your car to keep warm. Flex fingers and toes, rotate arms, shake your legs, roll your shoulders and neck.
- Keep your seatbelt and flashers on. You may not be moving, but cars driving past you are, and they can run into you if they don’t see you.
To get yourself unstuck, take this approach:
- Consider your surroundings. Is it safe to get out of your vehicle? If there are downed power lines nearby, the snow may be electrically charged. Don’t venture out unless you know it’s safe.
- When digging yourself out, go from top to bottom. Wipe snow off the roof, then the sides, then shovel the tires, and finally shovel a path in the direction you want to go.
- Channel your inner MacGyver. 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.
- Keep going slow. 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.
15. TAKE YOUR TIME
“Expect driving around the Christmas holiday to take twice as long,” D’Arbelles says.
In other words, if the trip home normally takes two hours, don’t say you’ll be there in two hours. Say you’ll be there in four. That way, if by some miracle you arrive in three hours, you’re not stressed and your family isn’t worried about you – a win-win.
D’Arbelles also reminds travelers to let family and friends know when you’ve left.
“Distraction causes a lot of collisions,” she says, “and if you’re halfway to the family’s and you realize that you’re hitting traffic or the weather’s really bad and you’re getting text messages and calls from your family, some people start to get nervous, and that’s when they get in a collision.”
16. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TURN BACK
If things get too bad, and especially if you’re driving into bad weather, sometimes your best option is to pull over or turn around.
“If the storm is getting really, really bad and you have the opportunity to turn around, do that,” D’Arbelles says.
“Otherwise, pulling over and making sure you’re not trying to drive through something where you can’t see is the best option if you’re on a highway in the middle of nowhere.”
17. LEAVE THE LIGHTS ON
You don’t want to leave obvious signs that you’re not home around the holidays.
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. Wrap your water pipes with heat tape. Have a neighbor watch your home.
18. TAKE CARE OF YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
Traveling is always stressful on the body, but especially when switching through various climates. Stock up on over-the-counter drops, sprays, and tissues – including travel-sized items you can fit into your carry-on.
Should the virus win, contact your travel-insurance carrier to help arrange a doctor visit.
19. PACK EFFICIENTLY
Traveling from warm to cold, and don’t want to wear winter clothes on the plane? 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 home.
Pro Tip: Services like LuggageFree will transport heavy suitcases from your home to your hotel room and back. They’re great for items like skis, diving gear, and musical instruments.
20. PACK THE RIGHT THINGS THE RIGHT WAYS
The Federal Aviation Administration reminds travelers: If you’re packing batteries in your luggage, cover the ends with tape, put each battery in its own baggie, or keep them in their original packaging.
Also, if you’re travelling with e-cigarettes or vaping devices, remember that they’re prohibited in checked baggage, and can’t be used onboard.
In addition, the TSA notes (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) that gravy must adhere to the 3-1-1 rule: It’s okay to pack gallons of the stuff in your checked bag, but carry-ons are restricted to three-ounce bottles in a one-quart baggie.
Finally, ship any Nerf guns or other weapony-looking things you might be bringing on your trip. They’ll raise a red flag, even in checked baggage.
Pro Tip: The 3-1-1 rule also applies to snow globes.
21. RESERVE AHEAD
If you’re traveling during the holidays, make dinner reservations in advance, especially if you have dietary restrictions or allergies. Many restaurants serve set menus; review these ahead of time.
22. USE THE WEATHER.COM APP
Track the forecast for cities you’re traveling through so you know what to pack. Knowing the weather also will help you decide if you want to get up early or sleep in and let the plows 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.
23. CHECK HOLIDAY CLOSURES
Check closures ahead of time and plan your itinerary accordingly. The United States may be an open-365-days-a-year kind of place, but many foreign countries aren’t.
Don’t assume a famous restaurant in Paris or museum in Florence is going to be open on a holiday because the Met or Commander’s Palace is open back home. Check, confirm, and reserve.
24. MAKE ALTERNATIVE PLANS EARLY
Know your Plan B for grandma’s before you leave. If your flights through Denver are cancelled, can you fly through Wichita? If 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, and if winter happens, you’ll have your new roadmap all planned out.
25. USE TRAVEL ASSISTANCE
If you find yourself in dire need of a Plan B, good travel assistance is invaluable. When we advocate travel insurance for a road trip, this is one of the big reasons why.
And speaking of travel assistance, it’s just one of the many benefits that comes with travel insurance from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. It’s easy to get covered and protect all your holiday travels.
If you need to know more about what travel insurance can do, check out our special guide, “What Is Travel Insurance All About.”
Now, off to grandma’s!
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