How to stay sane at the airport and on the roads
If you think traveling during the holidays has been a hassle in recent years, it’s about to get crazier. In the words of the illustrious Bachman Turner Overdrive, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The TSA expects to screen 25 million travelers between Nov. 16 and Nov. 26, making it one of the busiest Thanksgivings on record. It’s a 5 percent increase over the same period last year.
It will be just as crazy on the roads. AAA is projecting travel by car will reach its highest level since 2005 with 54.3 million Americans driving 50 miles or more this Thanksgiving, a 4.8 percent increase over last year. Trains will offer little relief. It’s Amtrak’s busiest week of the year.
If you are unable to delay travel plans — I usually suggest celebrating Thanksgiving in March for fewer crowds and cheaper fares — here are a few ideas to make your journey smoother.
Before you go to the airport
If you haven’t booked your flight yet (what in the world are you waiting for?) choose the first flight of the day. Earlier flights have a better chance of taking off on time. Delays accumulate throughout the day. If an early flight is canceled, you also might have a chance of jumping on a later flight.
Download essential apps to your phone or tablet long before you get to the airport. Start by downloading the app for the airline you’re flying. Airline apps have varying levels of usefulness, but most will update you on your flight status even before you depart for the airport.
Several airlines apps, such as those for Delta and American, allow you to track your luggage. Your airline app is also important for entertainment. Many, such as Southwest and Alaska, only offer streaming entertainment to your personal device. There are no seatback screens. Most also offer access to customer service representatives.
If you’re renting a car, download the app for your car rental company and make sure you have your rental confirmation number handy.
I keep a full arsenal of travel apps on my phone, even though many have overlapping features. Tripit, my app of choice, goes into my e-mail, finds travel reservations, and culls them into a tidy itinerary. The basic version is free. I subscribe to Tripit Pro ($49), which sends me notifications of connecting gates, delays, and how much time I have to reach my connecting flight. Google Trips and TripCase have similar features.
If you face long delays at the airport and you don’t have status on an airline, download LoungeBuddy to locate and book access to those posh premium lounges. It won’t get you in for free, but booking yourself into a lounge can help you find food, beverages, food, solid Wi-Fi, and maybe even a shower.
If you didn’t get the seat you wanted when you booked your flight, try Seat Alerts. It periodically scans your reservation for the seat you prefer so you can avoid the dreaded middle seat. It will then send an alert if the seat you want becomes available.
Mobile Passport is a must-have app for international travelers who do not have Global Entry. With Mobile Passport, fill out flight information on your phone as soon as you land. Answer the usual customs questions and, if you have nothing to declare, you’re issued an electronic receipt good for three hours. There is a dedicated Mobile Passport line and, every time I look over, it’s usually empty. It’s a great way to bypass long passport control lines into the United States.
After all of that downloading, charge your devices the night before. Your plane may not have USB or electrical outlets.
Before you leave for the airport, make sure you have all necessary cords packed, along with backup batteries for your phone or tablet. If you’re flying a budget airline that scrutinizes every pound and ounce of your suitcase and carry-on, weigh it before you get to the airport.
Tackling the airport
Given the holiday hordes, you need to get to the airport early, especially all of you Procrastinating Peters who love to cut it close. Traffic to the airport will be heavy, along with foot traffic inside the airport. Give yourself an extra two hours. At worst you’ll have time to relax before your flight.
Consider checking a bag rather than using a carry-on. Full flights often mean no space in the overhead bin. Checking may cost an additional $25 to $30, but it takes the stress off of searching for space in the overhead. It will also make the boarding process move much quicker.
Do your part to make the line at TSA checkpoints move faster by shedding coats, shoes, and belts while you’re standing in line. You don’t need an associate’s degree from Pole Dancer Community College to know that you should be stripping while waiting. Empty your pockets, or remove your laptop from its case. You know you’ll need to do these things once you approach the scanner, so why not start early? The TSA has made an effort to improve service at checkpoints, now it’s your turn.
If the weather is looking questionable before your flight, regularly check the airline’s website. Many offer the option of rebooking without an additional fee as inclement weather approaches. If you run into problems with delays or cancellations, don’t be afraid to tweet at the airline or post to its Facebook page. I’ve found that I get very quick responses from tweeting to the airline. I once got booked on a new flight when I was about to miss a connecting flight just by tweeting.
Whether it’s on social media, on the phone, or in person, don’t lose your tempter with the gate agent or service representative if problems arise. Trust me, they also wish your flight wasn’t canceled or delayed. A little civility goes a long way.
If you find yourself stuck overnight, jump onto the HotelTonight app. I can’t praise this app enough. It offers discounts on hotel rooms in your proximity, and the deals are often pretty fantastic. It’s perfect if you find yourself in a last-minute pinch.
Lastly, if you’re traveling with holiday gifts, leave them unwrapped. The TSA may need to see what’s inside the packages. Better yet, ship gifts ahead so you’re not weighed down by them.
Driving to your destination
The Thanksgiving exodus begins Monday, but by Tuesday motorists are generally trapped in a bumper-to-bumper breaklight nightmare. According to AAA, the worst time to depart Boston is 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 20. If you ignore this warning, be prepared to sit in traffic three-and-a-half times longer than usual. Just think of all the podcasts you can consume on the drive to grandma’s house. Google reports the worst time to depart Boston is 3 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving. It also reports that the best time to leave Boston is 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
Don’t forget to add a splash of Red Bull to your coffee if you follow Google’s departure advice.
A good way to avoid traffic tie-ups is to download Waze to your phone. If you’re one of the rare few who hasn’t heard of this app, it offers alternative routes in heavy traffic.
Another handy app for driving is iExit. It tells you what is near every highway exit, such as gas stations, restaurants, and ATMs. If there’s a particular restaurant chain you love, you can mark it as a favorite and iExit will tell you if you’re approaching it. Yes, I’m looking at you In-N-Out burger.
If you’re the kind that pinches pennies until they’re black and blue, I recommend GasBuddy. The name may sound like an over-the-counter product for settling an upset stomach, but it actually finds gas stations by location and price. It can even figure out if driving a few miles out of the way will save you money.
No matter what your preferred mode of transportation, give yourself plenty of time, anticipate delays every step of the way, and keep your eyes on the prize — namely a slice of pumpkin pie cheesecake and a very tall glass of your favorite adult beverage. It will help you forget about the travel chaos waiting for you on the trip home.