By Joe Brancatelli

From November 1998

Did you listen to all the "experts" on television and radio just before the Thanksgiving Weekend? Did you hear them pontificate about their can't-miss tips on how to survive the busy holiday travel season?

What a crock. Or, in keeping with the spirit of this holiday season, what a moldy old fruitcake.

Not only were the talking heads boring, they were often wrong. Any one of you who listened to them and delayed your departure from Thanksgiving Day Eve to Thanksgiving Day to beat the crowds learned that lesson.

When you got to the airport Thanksgiving Day, you undoubtedly found the crowds in the terminals just as large as you remembered them from last Thanksgiving Day Eve or the Friday before Labor Day. That's because the airlines now offer outrageously low fares on the holiday in order to fill up their planes. People buy the low fares, clog up the airport on the holiday, and make you life just as hellish as if you had left the night before.

Why don't the talking-head experts know this? Why do they keep giving the same old tips? Why do they give you bad advice?

Mostly because they are lazy. The "experts" show up on television show or the radio only to plug their travel book or their travel magazine. They don't really care about your holiday-travel dilemma. So they keep trotting out the same old tired tips, most of them originally compiled in 1957 by a writer who now lives in the South of France and hasn't been to the United States since the invention of the passenger jet.

You want some useful tips to survive the Christmas-Chanukah-New Year's-Ramadan season? Try these ten. They're fresh. They're real. They work. And I ain't writing them to plug my book or my magazine.

1. DON'T CHECK YOUR BAGS Airlines don't lose many bags (only about five for every 1,000 passengers, and four of those are located within 24 hours), but they do a lousy job of moving luggage in a timely fashion. Checking and retrieving bags is a one-hour ordeal during the holiday season. Skip it. Restrict yourself to carry-on bags. If you need to take more than you can carry on, ship it before you leave via UPS or FedEx. And talk to your airline before you pack. Most still honor the two carry-on rule, but some carriers are cutting back to one bag on certain flights.

2. GET THE PAPER FIRST If you don't check bags, you won't need to wait in a line at the terminal if you have your tickets and your boarding passes. All airlines and travel agents offer advance ticketing and advance boarding-pass service on all domestic and some international flights. Use it. Period.

3. GET THE GATE EARLY Some airlines now require you to be at the departure gate 20 minutes before domestic departures and 90 minutes before international flights. Be there. It not only ensures you won't lose your pre-assigned seat, you'll be able to board as soon as your row is called and that means you'll be assured maximum carry-on space.

4. USE THE PHONES If your flight is delayed or canceled, do not go back to the ticket counter for assistance. Go directly to the nearest telephone and call the airline's 800 reservations number. The telephone agent can do anything the ticket-counter agent can do for you--and the telephone agent isn't trying to cope with an immediate crisis of hundreds of unhappy, confused passengers clamoring for new seats and new flights.

5. DON'T BE NASTY If something goes wrong, know your rights and demand fair treatment--but don't be nasty. Ticket and gate agents are just as stressed as you are, but they all have the power. If you're nasty, they'll make your life more miserable than it already is. If you're nice, they'll usually be helpful. And, after all, it's the season of good will to men: Treat them just as you want to be treated.

6. DON'T PARK AT THE AIRPORT Airport parking lots are crowded and confusing places during the best of times. During the holidays, they are positively Dickensian. Avoid them at all costs. Most airports have convenient, off-airport parking services. You can park there, and they will shuttle you and your luggage right to your departure terminal. Better yet, their daily rates are usually less than the cost of the on-airport parking fields.

7. LEAVE EARLY IN THE DAY Whenever possible, book early-morning departures rather than the last flights out. If your flight is canceled or the weather is bad, you've got a better chance of finding an alternative flight if you start out in the morning. If you book the later flights and they are canceled, you may be stranded. Trust me on this one: A cold, hard airport floor is no place to spend New Year's Eve.

8. JUST LEAVE EARLY Don't make me tell you something you already know. The roads to, in and around the airports are wildly overcrowded during the holidays. Stop bitching. Just leave for your flight a zillion hours early. The worst thing that can happen is that you arrive at the airport early. Find a seat and read. Or memorize the lyrics to the Twelve Days of Christmas. Anything is better than sitting in traffic and missing your flight.

9. BOOK A NONSTOP Don't mess around with "direct" or "connecting" flights if a nonstop flight is available. Book the nonstop, even if it costs a few bucks more. It's the law of averages: The fewer stops and flight changes you make along the way, the less chance there is of the airline screwing up on you.

10. PACK A PICNIC Don't even waste your time worrying about whether the airline will serve you a meal or whether it'll be any good. They probably won't, and, if they do, it'll be inedible. Pack your own picnic: a sandwich, some cheese or fruit, a packaged snack, a split of wine, whatever.

Me? I won't be flying this holiday season. It's not a political statement, just a lifestyle choice. But wherever your travels take you, go in peace.

And remember the reason for the season: It's not about the gifts you're giving. It's all about the life you're living.


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