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By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/16/2010 9:23:44 AM ET 2010-12-16T14:23:44

Traveling during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s season can be a frustrating, patience-testing, character-building experience, but there is one thing it isn’t: predictable.

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Consider last year’s winter holidays, which featured a terrorist threat, a major airline whose crew voted to strike, and a blizzard that froze travel along the East Coast of the United States.

No one knows what this season will bring, but observers are pretty sure of one thing — you can expect the unexpected.

"We can't prepare for every possibility," said J. Brandon, president of American Sahara, an event management services for adventure travel companies. "The only way to be prepared is with the idea that we can handle anything that might happen."

To that effect, experts say you can take steps to ensure these inevitable holiday surprises won’t ruin your trip. They include taking some common-sense precautions, finding the support you’ll need if things go wrong and giving yourself a little extra time.

But mostly, planning for the worst — and hoping for the best.

Keep up to date
Staying on top of the news is important, given all the events that tend to happen during the holidays. Security expert Diana Kelley was on the road when the Transportation Security Administration’s new liquid and gel rules first went into effect, but because she was monitoring the situation, she repacked to comply with the rules.

"By monitoring the situation, I was able to re-tool my luggage to ensure I was in-line with the new regulations before boarding the plane home," she said. Since then, she always recommends that travelers carry a smartphone, where you can keep tabs on the latest events.

Video: Gearing up for holiday travel (on this page)

A good travel agent can help, too. "Find someone who values customer service and will personally get on the phone with all the services such as flights, hotels, tours, and transfers and start rearranging your itinerary, even if you are out of touch and cannot get ahold of them," suggested Monica Irauzqui of Yampu Tours, a tour operator that specializes in Latin America.

During this year’s disasters, including the Chilean earthquake, Peruvian mudslides and the volcanic eruption in Europe, her company tracked clients and got them out of harm’s way, often without them having to ask.

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Travel insurance is another way to hedge your bets during the holidays. But Damian Tysdal, who runs the site Travel Insurance Review, warned that policies don’t cover every event, so you may still end up losing your winter vacation even if you’re insured.

"Knowing that the list of covered reasons for cancellations cannot satisfy every need, travel insurance companies developed 'cancel for any reason' plans so you can literally cancel for any reason," he said. He warns, though, that there are some restrictions, including that you have to cancel a trip within 48 hours, usually.

Making a difference
A little preparation can also help, said John Stewart Bowerman, a travel agent with Cardoza-Bungey Travel in Palo Alto, Calif.

"Have copies of your passport and credit card information available elsewhere — as in, not with the originals," he said. "These can be replaced, sometime by jumping through some hoops, but the hoops become less tricky if you have numbers and identification for the originals."

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Some build disaster into their travel plans. Jim Dailakis, an actor and voiceover artist, gives himself an extra day to get to his destination during the holidays. "I can’t begin to tell you what a lifesaver this has been and how much more relaxed I am if something does go wrong," he said. "If there's a snowstorm, I don't have to worry about not making it to the gig that night or wherever my destination may be. Instead, I'm 100 percent relaxed, knowing that I have bought myself that extra time. It makes such a difference."

Above all, positive attitude is a must when dealing with the uncertainty of holiday travel, said Elizabeth Lombardo, author of "A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness."

"Keep things in perspective," she recommended. "If you have to wait an extra five hours at the airport because some unforeseen event, remind yourself that you are safe and on the ground. Although it may not be optimal, it is not the end of the world."

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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Timeline: Top travel stories of 2010

From a volcano that disrupted air travel across Europe to Steve Slater's infamous exit on a JetBlue emergency chute, here's a look at the top travel stories of the year.

Video: Gearing up for holiday travel

Photos: Holiday Travel

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  1. (Joe Heller / The Green Bay Press-Gazette, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. (Jimmy Margulies / The New Jersey Record, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. (Nate Beeler / The Washington Examiner, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. (Adam Zyglis / The Buffalo News, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. (Joe Heller / The Green Bay Press-Gazette, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. (Andy Singer / No Exit, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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