We Love Travel – Thanksgiving Craziness Edition

Long Lines at Dulles, by cafemama (Creative Commons)

Long Lines at Dulles, by cafemama (Creative Commons)

It’s that time of year again! Time to head to visit family and friends for Thanksgiving Food (and the required naps after eating all that food). Now there is only one thing standing in your way: Getting There.

In this Thanksgiving issue, I’m going to cover a few of the tips I’ve learned over the last several years on how to survive the holiday madness. I know everyone has their own way of getting home, so I’ll cover a few of the majors. Let me know if you have any other tips – I’m always looking for great ideas.

Avoiding the Airport Crush

The first thing I tell everyone traveling this week – especially on Wednesday, the insane day – is to be patient. Before you leave, realize that most of the people working at the airports were up at 4 or 5 am this morning. Holiday travel is an “all hands on deck” time of year, so all the desk people, TSA crews, and everyone else will be running on coffee and little sleep. Be patient with them – it’s a long hard slog for each and every one.

We all know there will be lines. They won’t be as bad this year as last year, according to AAA, but I would still expect to run in to a few. Here are a few ways to work around them:

  • Parking – when heading to the airport by car, be sure to give yourself extra time to find a parking space and also to use the crowded shuttle buses. At Dulles, add at least 1 hour for parking. National is a bit better, but still give yourself 30-45 extra minutes.A few suggestions. If you are headed to BWI, try one of the independent parking lots. Their dedicated shuttles are GREAT, and they will remember where you parked your car. It’s worth the few extra dollars. At Dulles, I might suggest paying extra for the daily lots. And, if you decide to do that, choose Daily Lot B. There is an underground tunnel that runs directly to the airport from this lot, which is much warmer and has moving walkways to the terminal.
  • Ticketing – First, check in on the web the night before. No kidding here, as you might get a chance at a better seat. Plus, you don’t need to get a boarding pass at the airport. A lot of the airports have baggage check only areas, separate from the ticketing lines. It is one less step in the process.The best bet? Just pack SMALL. One small bag with a few changes of clothes that you can put under the seat in front of you. Don’t count on overhead space, all flights will be FULL. And then don’t pack any liquids if you can help it. Don’t your relatives already have toothpaste, shaving cream, and shampoo? They don’t have a CVS where you are going? No liquids equals one less problem at security. And that stuff is so cheap, it’s not worth it. Finally, if you can do carry on, and you have your boarding pass, you can skip this line entirely.
  • Security – Remember the basics, and you’ll get through this fine. First, the lines will be long, so just be patient with it. But smart packing can make things faster. First, wear smart clothing. All coats and outwear must come off, so limit yourself to shirts and sweaters with a coat. That zip-up fleece under your coat is another layer you have to take off, so keep it simple. Also, wear shoes you can get on and off quickly, and wear socks – those tiles are cold in the winter.Second, put all your keys, metal objects, and everything else in a zipper pocket in one of your bags. Check all your pockets before you go to the airport. Keep your ID and ticket out where you can get to them. Everything else in the bag. Then, once your ID is checked, get ready in the line. Take off your shoes, put them in the bin first, and coat over top of them. If you have liquids, get them out. And all laptops must come out, so find a second bin if you brought a laptop.Once you get past the detectors, GET OUT OF THE WAY. Grab your stuff, move to someplace calmer, and put it all back together. Take inventory before you leave, but do it from someplace where you aren’t rushed so you don’t miss anything.

Where is my plane?

One more thing can go wrong – what if your flight is delayed or cancelled? Well, there are several options available to you, but you need to be smart before you do anything.

DON’T PANIC. REMAIN CALM. Delays and cancellations are frustrating. First, know that the person across the desk didn’t cause this problem. Be really nice to them, as they are your best hope (and they don’t get a lot of “nice”, so you might get lucky here.)

If your flight is delayed, find out how long. If you are delayed past the next flight heading the same way, ask if you can go standby on that flight. Then grab a good book and just relax. And you can use your phone to check for status on a flight – just call the airline and use the automated systems to find out more. (If you think the desk person has any better information, you are kidding yourself. They might know less than you do.)

If your flight is cancelled, things are going to get interesting. First, find out if they can rebook you on another later flight. They will tell you the first flight you can be guaranteed to fly. That’s fine – this is your “last resort” flight. Once you know that, ask what the standby list looks like on all other flights heading the same place. Because sometimes you can go standby quickly, if the list is short. Again, ASK, don’t yell. Because they can’t move you higher up the list, but they CAN move you down the list. And if your flight is cancelled, you can try to get rebooked on another carrier. Most major carriers have common carry agreements (not SouthWest, though). So ask if they can rebook you on another carrier. If the line is long, call reservations. Any person with a computer can try to help you out. (If reservations can’t figure out how to do it, hang up and try again. Some newer telephone reps don’t always know all the procedures.) Also, ask if there are flights out of OTHER airports nearby.

If your flight is cancelled, you are due compensation. Make sure you get that before you leave the airport.

Driving the Distance

The roads over the hoidays will be full of people. Remember the crowds over summer heading to the beach? This is a lot like that, but the weather isn’t anywhere near as nice. Neither are the drivers – this is DC after all. So here are a few thoughts before you head out.

  • Stop every 2-3 hours. A lot of my friends just want to “get there” and tell me all about how they push on through the 8 hour drive non-stop. I try to smile at them, but in the back of my head I just hope they make it in one piece. The estimate is that drivers are TWICE as likely to get in an accident after the 2.5 hour mark of driving non-stop. I like the new gas stations, like Sheetz or WaWa, where I can go inside for a soda or a bottle of water. Just stopping for a few minutes helps.
  • Get out early – All the traffic web sites say that traffic is worse from about 1 pm to about 9 pm. That is because everyone finishes packing, and then heads out later than they thought. If you are going a long distance, try to put lunch as a guaranteed break during the travel.
  • Walk around your car – Anything look wierd? Do all of your lights work? How about your tires? (If your tires have a little “dent” at the bottom where they meet the road, they are underinflated. Fix that before you leave.) Get gas the night before, and replace your windshield wipers while you are at the gas station. Fill up that washer fluid, too. (Airline pilots check thier enitre aircraft before every flight – and they are pretty smart people. Seems like a good idea here too.)

Good luck with your holiday travels. Let me know how they went – and if you had any problems. I’ll write about the good and the bad after everyone gets back.

Jonathan Baker

came to DC, left for San Francisco, and then realized he couldn’t live without a daily fix of politics and came back. When not traveling to crazy locations, he speaks and writes for a major software house in CA.

5 thoughts on “We Love Travel – Thanksgiving Craziness Edition

  1. Ah! Jonathan, your article is our lifesaver. We had to book out of BWI (argh) for our trip tomorrow and I totally totally forgot about off-site parking at BWI. BEST. IDEA. EVER. I used to do this all the time at RDU in NC! I looked it up and it’ll cost me $6.35 a day, so much cheaper than $8 a day, with the personal car-to-curb shuttle! :) Good tip, good article!

  2. There are a few (and I should say “few”) choices near DCA as well. The Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn have offered daily parking rates that shuttle to the airport. The shuttle is the regular hotel shuttle, so it isn’t as convenient as BWI. But DCA’s long term parking lot fills up FAST, so if you are stuck these might be an option. (Check with them by phone before heading over, as I don’t know how much parking space they have.)

    DCA also offers a count of the remaining parking spaces on thier website.

    I’ve wondered why Dulles doesn’t offer this, but I think it has to do with the operations of the parking garages and the contracts they have. IAD is a monopoly airport – Washington Flyer is proof of that – so it’s no surprise that your options are limited there.

  3. I would point out that BWI offers a number of on-airport parking options that are CLOSE and convenient– all at affordable rates.

    In fact, the BWI website (BWIairport.com) offers a coupon for the BWI Express parking lot. BWI Express parking provides carside-to-curbside shuttle service and luggage assistance.

    And with the BWI improvement and expansion program that was recently completed, the Airport now offers more parking than ever before for travelers.

  4. Wrong! Never check your bags! (Sorry – had to keep up the tradition.)

    Great tips here. Another road tip – take the back roads. Just don’t take the ones I am getting on in a couple hours!