Some of the statistics you probably already know. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year, as everyone tries to get home for Thanksgiving. Those numbers are more or less inevitable. Twenty-seven million passengers will fly from Nov. 23 through Nov. 27. It's not going to be pretty.
But you don't have to be abused by the numbers, by airports or airlines. Here are my last-minute travel tips to get you home with the least amount of stress and abuse.
I'm not going to tell you to get to the airport early. Everyone else will tell you that. What I will tell you is to be a contrarian traveler, and — in effect — to ignore virtually every airport/airline sign.
First, if at all possible, ship your bags ahead. There are about 17 separate door-to-door courier services that will do the job, and if you do it at least three days in advance, you get a substantial discount. Then:
1. Check in for your flight and print your boarding pass on your home computer the night before.
2. When getting to the airport (especially for a morning flight), don't go to the departure level. It will be a zoo. Besides, you have no baggage to check and you already have your boarding pass. Instead, skip the car and people traffic and head for the arrivals level. In the early morning, no one is there. Then take the escalator upstairs and go through security to your gate.
3. When you arrive, have your friends or family pick you up at the departure level. No one will be there (they will all be downstairs screaming and pushing, hoping against hope that their bags were actually on the same flight they were, and waiting for at least 40 minutes or more for that carousel to start moving). And then, they can all wait in line for transportation and get stuck in traffic. You, on the other hand, are already in your car and headed out of the airport. And where are your bags? At your final destination — your home, or your hotel room.
4. If you must check bags, don't wrap any presents. They may be opened by security personnel, especially if you use any wrapping paper that may contain metal or foil. Also, do not expect the ID tag that you faithfully put on the outside of your bag to remain there. Baggage conveyor belts love to eat these tags. So protect yourself. With duct tape, affix a larger ID to the inside of your bag, so that if the outside tag is lost, someone opening your bag will at least know where to find you.
5. An additional thought about checked bags — especially during the holidays. Be advised that luggage thieves as a general rule don't steal bags, but individual items from those bags. And they are hoping that you behave in a consistent manner — that when you arrive at your destination, and then, when you see your bag coming around on the carousel, that you are so happy and relieved to see it that you simply grab it and leave the airport.
It's only when you get home and open it that you discover an item or items missing. And by then, it's too late — your word against the airline's, and you will probably lose. Instead, take three minutes at baggage claim and open your bag right there to determine that all the contents are inside. And if not, file a claim immediately at the airport.
Some other Thanksgiving travel thoughts:
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If at all possible, think alternate airports. Flint instead of Detroit; Milwaukee instead of Chicago; Oakland instead of San Francisco; Providence instead of Boston.
Last, but not least, if you've either waited until the last minute to make your plans or, like some of us, actually believe that Thanksgiving is an obligatory dysfunctional family get-together, then follow this advice: Do NOT, under any circumstances, attempt to fly out on Wednesday the 21st. Assuming you can even get a seat, the price will border on outrageous. Instead, fly out on the very first flight on Thanksgiving morning. You'll still get to where you need to go in time to cut the turkey, see your crazy relatives and let them push all the emotional buttons during dinner.
Stay the night. And then, on Friday afternoon, fly home. (Your flight will be ... empty, and the airfare will be much lower.) It's a triple-win for all concerned. You went home for Thanksgiving, you saw the family, and you returned back to your home in time to keep the weekend for yourself. And then, you get to watch all of your other friends struggle in their own personal remakes of the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”!
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com.
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