The flights are booked, the drive is mapped out, the gifts are wrapped – well, some of them anyway – but are you truly ready for what’s to come? For many of us, this year marks the first chance to spend the festive season with loved ones after endless pandemic restrictions, and millions of people are expected to seize the opportunity, resulting in a mass migration that will render roads, rails and airways exceptionally hectic. Add ongoing staffing shortages, health concerns and inflation-induced stress to the annual holiday chaos, and you have a recipe for an unusually fraught festive travel season.

The good news is that, while many aspects of your journey will be beyond your control, there are a few ways you can take action to mitigate the worst of the travel woes or, at the very least, ensure you arrive at your destination in jolly spirits.

1. Do Your Due Diligence

In the face of a hectic travel season, preparation is your greatest ally. We would go so far as to say there’s no such thing as being over-prepared. For a smooth airport experience, take the time-honoured advice of travel experts like downloading your airline’s app (which will keep you apprised of any gate changes, delays and other important info) and having more than one way to access your boarding pass (print it if you can, or keep it in an email so you can pull it up on another device should something happen to your phone). Don’t forget to check your passport expiration date, as some destinations require passports to be valid for six months after arrival.

Flight delays and cancellations have plagued the industry all year, so you’ll want to be ready in case your journey is affected. Have a contingency plan in the event your flight is scrapped and your airline can’t rebook you, or if a delay will cause you to miss a connection; this could mean familiarising yourself with the next outgoing flights to your destination, or even mapping a car/train journey to a nearby airport that offers more flights. In situations where it’s imperative that you arrive on a certain date, it may even be prudent to book a back-up flight – though there are a few things to consider before doing so.

Speaking of air travel chaos, if you don’t normally purchase travel insurance, now is the time to rethink your stance. Airlines are not required to reimburse ticket holders for cancellations or missed connections caused by inclement weather, nor is there any recourse if you have to cancel due to illness – factors that are not unlikely to come into play this time of year. Seeking out a travel insurance policy that covers you for such eventualities will give you additional peace of mind as you embark on your trip, but do your research thoroughly, comparing prices and coverage so you select the one that best fits your needs. And of course, always read the fine print.

Finally, travel health insurance may be worth considering this year as well, if you don’t usually take it. In fact, some countries have recently made it mandatory for visitors to have coverage; depending on your destination and country of origin, this may affect you.

2. Minimise Your Baggage

If you think about it, much of the stress, bother and general unpleasantness that is contemporary air travel stems from queuing, so any queue that can be skipped is a win. To this end, try to limit your load to just a carry-on: not only will you bypass the lines for checking and retrieving stowed luggage, but you’ll also save money (now that most airlines no longer include a free checked bag in the basic ticket price), and you’ll eliminate the risk of your luggage going missing – which is a distinct possibility now more than ever, with many airports short on staff.

“But what about all the gifts I need to bring?” we hear you protest. To skirt the issue, consider ordering the bulk of your gifts online and having them shipped directly to your destination, or perhaps to a friend or relative who will lives nearby or will be driving with room to spare. Just make sure you warn the recipients not to open the packages beforehand.

If, on the other hand, you’ve done the maths and foregoing a checked bag line is not an option, slip in a trackable luggage tag so you’ll always know where your stuff is (even if the airline doesn’t).

3. Pack Like A Pro

We know, the idea of going carry-on only fills many travellers with dread, but it’s easier than it may seem. We promise. The first thing you need is a checklist, an indispensable tool for gathering your thoughts, focusing on the necessities and making sure they all end up in the suitcase. Using programmes like Google Drive or a voice assistant app will allow you to add to your list as the ideas come, no matter where you are, while enabling others in your entourage to do so as well.

When it’s time to lug out the luggage, remember a few tried-and-true packing tips: Roll your clothing, don’t fold. Favour garments that can be layered and which serve multiple purposes. Utilise packing cubes to organise and compress, saving time and space. Take only the essential toiletries you truly need, and swap liquids for solids whenever possible to minimise weight. Wrap any gifts at your destination, in case your bag is selected for a manual security check. Transporting liquids like fine olive oil, vinegar or wine? Don’t rely on good karma to keep the rest of your luggage safe; seal bottles into plastic bags, then wrap in thick clothing items for protection, and pack in the middle of your suitcase, where they will be better insulated from impact. Find more handy packing advice here.

4. Be The Early Bird

This is a good rule for life in general, but it applies double this holiday season. Considering that time pressures are a major cause of travel troubles, one of the easiest things you can do to set yourself up for success is to leave yourself plenty of time. This season, experts recommend arriving at the airport two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international one. Add even more buffer by basing your airport ETA on your flight’s boarding time, not its scheduled departure, and you’ll be ready to face just about any hiccups that might come your way, from traffic on the way to the terminal, to sluggish queues at security or an unexpectedly long hike to your gate. Reward yourself with a warm drink and a snack as you wait for boarding to begin.

The same rule applies to road trips. Like death, taxes and family gossip over Christmas dinner, holiday traffic is one of life’s inevitabilities. The only thing you can do is try to be one step ahead. Aim to build at least an hour’s leeway into your driving itinerary – more if your route takes you down heavily travelled arterial roads, or if you’ve got young kids on board. This will allow you to absorb any unanticipated delays, whether due to weather conditions, highway construction, traffic jams or the umpteenth potty break, without resorting to risky manoeuvres to arrive on time.

5. Think Of The Children

Travelling with small kids can be harrowing at the best of times, but pile on the trials and tribulations of the holiday rush, and you’re in for a looooooooong journey. So go easy on yourself, and take advantage of any extras that might make your travels more tolerable. Does your airport offer curb-side luggage check-in? Go for it. That will free up your hands to wrangle kids and tote carry-ons, while also letting you skip the bag check line entirely. Does your airline offer pre-boarding? Plan for one parent to board the plane, stow the luggage and get settled in peace, while the other stays with the kids at the gate so they can stretch their legs and burn excess energy until the last possible minute. Win-win-win.

Whether flying or driving, stave off boredom and frustration by bringing more entertainment than you think they’ll need, from books to toys, films and age-appropriate game apps – this is not the moment to worry about screen time. Also, remember to pack a pillow, blanket and perhaps a plush toy or two to make them feel snuggly and right at home. Most of the time, keeping kids comfy, entertained and well-fed is enough to ensure smooth sailing. Which leads us to our next tip…

6. Always Bring Snacks

Nobody likes a hangry traveller, so keep yourself and your cohort fuelled up for the journey by packing enough snacks to power you through. Portable bites like nuts, granola bars, sandwiches and the odd sweet treat should help keep you satisfied between meals, without resorting to over-priced airport food or greasy gas station snacks. (Scout out a few delicious ideas here.)

7. Stay Entertained

Don’t underestimate the importance of keeping yourself busy and/or entertained on a lengthy journey; you may plan on dozing off before wheels up, but there’s always a chance the sandman could forsake you. Not to mention, if your flight is delayed or cancelled, you’ll need something to keep your mind off the situation.

Water is also crucial. If you’re flying – especially long-haul – bring several empty water bottles to refill after security. This way, you can stay hydrated in the skies without paying for marked-up bottled water, and you’ll help reduce waste from those tiny plastic bottles many airlines hand out.

When it comes to recreation en route, plan ahead for all eventualities. Pack important chargers, cables and power banks in your carry-on, in case you find your devices running out of juice. Pre-download any books, podcasts or movies well in advance, so you’re not at the mercy of the fickle airport WiFi gods. You might even consider having some – gasp! – analog entertainment at hand. Sudoku, crossword puzzles, word searches, magazines and good old paperback books are just a few classic options, no charging necessary.

8. Take Care Of Yourself

Nothing can ruin a holiday trip faster than a bout of illness, and even though it may seem like the pandemic is just a bad memory, it’s not completely over – and flu season is just getting started. Air travel means mixing with a lot of different people, usually in tight quarters, so take the necessary precautions to protect yourself from seasonal sickness. This means washing your hands regularly and keeping your distance whenever possible – and wearing a mask when it’s not. Staying up to date with Covid-19 boosters and flu shots is also advisable, especially if you will be visiting vulnerable friends and relatives.

And let’s not forget the very basics of good health: even though delectable indulgences and late-night celebrations are part and parcel of the holiday season, the benefits of eating nutritious food, moving your body and getting enough sleep cannot be overstated. Click here to get nutritionist superstar Rujuta Diwekar’s tips for staying healthy on the go.

9. Be Kind

If you’re dreading the holiday travel season, imagine how workers in the travel industry must feel, especially after the nightmare they’ve already endured over the past couple of years. No matter what happens, whether your flight is cancelled, your luggage is lost, your plane is overbooked or you’re seated next to a colicky infant: Just. Be. Nice. A smile and a kind word are really all it takes. However, if you’d like to go above and beyond, consider bringing some gourmet chocolates or candies for the airline staff and crew to show your appreciation for their hard work. You may even get a little special treatment, but if not, at least you’ve made someone’s day that much more bearable.

10. Keep A Cool Head

At the risk of sounding like an overpriced airport gift shop mug, the ultimate golden rule of travel really is: keep calm and carry on. Recognise that many things can, and likely will, go wrong on your travels this holiday season, and that these things are out of your hands. No matter if the traffic jam is on the freeway or the runway, take a deep breath. Accept that problems and challenges are inevitable, but that the situation will pass sooner or later, and you will be on your way.

In the meantime, settle in and make the best of the situation. Clear out your inbox. Send a thoughtful message to a friend. Learn a few useful phrases in the language of your destination. Make some headway in the novel you’re reading. Grab a coffee (or something stronger) and listen to some soothing music. Eventually you will get where you’re going, and it will all have been worth it when you do.

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