The holidays are a joyful time, but holiday travel can be stressful, especially when you consider millions of other people vying to reach their holiday destination.
Donna Lee Sullins, Ed.D., instructional assistant professor in the Department of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Tourism in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said while the holidays can be an especially exasperating time to travel, there are steps to reduce travel stress.
“Holiday travel is often complicated by traffic, flight delays or cancellations and unexpected weather events, but there are ways you can prepare and adjust to help reduce the aggravation that often comes with holiday travel,” Sullins said.
Be flexible with your travel plans
One way to avoid holiday travel stress is to be flexible about travel dates – and possibly even airports, Sullins said.
“Using tools like Google Flights, you can enter multiple departure and arrival airports so it can source the best deal for you,” Sullins said. “If your travel dates are flexible, you can look at the calendar provided and choose your dates based on the best prices.”
She said if you live in an area served by more than one airport, you may find a better flight time or fare at a slightly more distant airport, making the drive worth the extra time and trouble.
“If possible, try to book a direct flight to lessen your chances of missing a connection,” she said. “And for international flights, airlines recommend you get to the airport at least three hours before your flight is scheduled. One of the major stressors over the holidays is managing time, so be sure to plan ahead for things to go wrong.”
Get to the gate on time
All passengers and checked bags must be checked-in at least 45 minutes prior to their scheduled flight departure time or they will not be allowed on the plane, said Heather Eden, Ph.D., also an instructional assistant professor in the Department of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Tourism.
“Even if you check in online during the 24 hours prior to your flight, you still must be present in the airport with checked bags at least 45 minutes before the flight departure time,” she said.
She said if you are checking your bags and are concerned about them not making it to your destination, it’s a good idea to pack a spare outfit in your carry on.
In international airports, passengers need to be aware that they may be held up as they are asked to discard liquids purchased inside security or on the plane when entering a new international border, she said.
“Those traveling by plane should look at the current travel guidelines available to be sure they know what to expect,” Eden said.
Memberships to help speed up your trip
Eden said frequent travelers should look into registering for Transportation Security Administration PreCheck and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program. Memberships last five years and provide benefits for travelers, including less time in security lines and less intrusive processing.
She said Global Entry costs a little more but includes TSA PreCheck as part of the membership. If you are travelling with children 17 and under, they can go through the TSA PreCheck line with their member parent.
“With TSA PreCheck, you won’t have to remove your belt or shoes and can keep your laptop in your bag,” she explained. “Global Entry has all the TSA PreCheck benefits plus expedited customs screenings when re-entering the U.S. With both these services, the time to get completely through security screening at the airport is about 10 minutes.”
Airline apps can help
Eden also suggested downloading your airline’s app on your smart phone. Checking in with it makes your ticket available on your phone, and you can track the progress of your luggage with apps.
“You should also set up notifications, so if your flight is delayed or cancelled the app will give you a pop-up notification that there’s been a change in your flight,” she said. “Then it will give you an option to reschedule another flight or wait for your original flight.”
Using the app to reschedule a flight could also help avoid the added time and stress of having to wait in line with the rest of the passengers who are trying to get a new flight, she said.
Planning and preparing beyond the airport
Another way to help reduce holiday travel stress is travel-planning that goes farther than just getting through the airport and to your destination, Sullins said.
“Many people don’t extend their travel planning past arriving at their destination and possibly reserving a vehicle or making hotel accommodations,” she said. “But if you really want to avoid some unpleasant surprises, you should also confirm the hours for those attractions you have planned to visit, events you want to attend and any special places where you want to eat.”
Making reservations or buying tickets in advance will help prevent disappointment and stress, and verifying those plans beforehand can help you adapt your planning. There may also be advantages, like discounts on tickets or entry to sites, for advance purchases.
Healthy travelers are happier travelers
Another important aspect of longer-term planning is to make sure you take care of your overall health before travel, said Courtney Suess-Raeisinafchi, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Tourism and Faculty Fellow, Texas A&M Center for Health and Nature.
“Getting sick can ruin your holiday plans and cost you money if you have non-refundable tickets,” she said. “With the holiday travel season coming up, there are several things you can do to keep yourself healthy. These include getting the updated COVID vaccine that protects against new strains, wearing a mask when you can’t maintain a social distance, like while on a plane, and washing your hands regularly.”
Suess–Raeisinafchi said many viruses can live on surfaces for an extended time and can be easily transmitted through touch.
“Some other ways to protect your health and keep your immune system strong are by getting adequate sleep, managing stress, avoiding heavy drinking, eating nutrient-rich whole foods, hydrating and getting physical activity,” she said.
Getting Zen at the airport
Let’s face it, a lot of travel stress is related to being in airports and worrying about getting to your destination or returning home. Flight delays or cancellations can ratchet up the stress level and create a cascading effect to your travel plans.
Laptops, tablets and/or smart phones can provide a welcome distraction during delays. Most airports, and even some airplanes, have charging stations to power up and free Wi-Fi to access, even download, entertainment.
“You can reduce some of the stress caused by flight delays by looking at them as an opportunity to do some holiday planning, read a book, listen to a podcast or to watch a movie,” Sullins said. “Be sure to use the airport’s free Wi-Fi to download any entertainment items before boarding the plane to make sure they are available to you in flight.”
For longer delays, some airport lounges have places where you can shower, eat and access Wi-Fi. Seasoned travelers sometimes get innovative at airports by doing stretching exercises, going for power walks or even meditating.
It’s gonna be a long one …
If it looks like your flight delay will extend overnight, you might consider booking a hotel at or near the airport.
“Airlines will sometimes book them for you, if they are the cause of your delay,” Sullins said. “Hotels attached to or nearby an airport with a shuttle may be priced higher than you would like for their convenience, but some extra down time may be just what you need during a busy travel day.”
If you are seeing many delayed or cancelled flights and you don’t want to suffer through an uncomfortable night in the airport, book a room as soon as possible, she said.
“Find out which hotels are in the vicinity and call their reservations numbers if it looks like you might otherwise get stuck,” Sullins said. “Calling will get you their most up-to-date openings, rather than trusting online listings of availability that might not be updated.”
Those who decide to tough it out overnight at the airport should try to stay positive and make every effort to be comfortable, she said.
“When I travel through an airport, I am always keeping my eyes open for waiting areas at gates, children’s playgrounds and even health and wellness spots in airports that may have a full-length couch or cushioned space for relaxing for a few overnight hours,” she said.
Sullins suggests at least one full change of clothing in a carry-on. Having a jacket or sweatshirt can also make an improvised blanket or pillow.
Long delays are another situation where snacks and water can help but be aware of closing times for food outlets and convenience stores.
Traveling with a sleep mask and ear plugs is always a good idea, as they can help reduce the impact of lights, music, announcements and airport activities through the night, she said.
Some road travel tips
The experts from the Department of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Tourism also offered these additional tips for reducing holiday travel stress related to road travel:
— If driving to your destination, be sure to get a tune-up and have your vehicle’s fluids checked. Make sure your tire pressure and tire tread are adequate for both the drive and for the conditions you can expect to be driving in once you reach that destination.
— If planning a road trip to a cold or snowy climate, make sure to pack several blankets, snacks and some emergency supplies in case of a breakdown or long traffic delay. Car heaters cannot always keep the inside of the car warm when it is below freezing outside, plus you may need to turn the vehicle off to conserve fuel if it’s an extra-long delay.
Some additional general travel tips
— If you are unsure what the weather will be during your trip or at your destination, dress in layers so you can adjust to differing weather conditions.
— Keep friends and family updated on your travels. Check in periodically with your close contacts to let them know you are safe and what you plan to do next as you travel.
— Watch your personal belongings at all times and use your best judgment when talking to strangers. If someone in your vicinity is acting suspiciously or makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, leave the area immediately and find a safer place.
— Take photos of your passport, driver’s license or another form of identification as well as credit cards. Use the scan feature in your smart phone for the best results. Make sure they are saved to a folder you can access online from anywhere. You may also want to print out a hard copy in case of poor Wi-Fi, should trouble arise. This is especially important if you are leaving the country.