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Win the season with The Ultimate Holiday Travel Survival Guide

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“We’d have more luck playing pickup sticks with our butt-cheeks than we will getting a flight out of here before daybreak.”

– John Candy, as Del Griffith, in Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Being stuck in a snowbound airport or dingy hotel room over the holidays must have resonated with moviegoers in late 1987.

More than a month after its American Thanksgiving release, Planes, Trains and Automobiles was finally pushed into the black by a telling anomaly: From Dec. 25 to 31, the box-office take of John Hughes’s road-trip farce jumped more than 60 per cent over the week before.

Fast-forward 29 years and our festive fears are as palpable as ever. According to a recent survey by Travelocity.ca, two thirds of Canadian holiday travellers plan to schedule their journeys at off-peak times – such as they are – to avoid unexpected costs, delays and other hassles. These misgivings are well-founded: Data from Oregon-based FlightStats Inc. reveals that the percentage of delayed flights at Canada’s four largest airports nearly doubled from November to December last year, with tardy departures at the country’s busiest air hub, Toronto Pearson, jumping from 15 to 23.5 per cent, the highest rate among its peers. Note to Hollywood: Planes, Trains and Automobiles II is long overdue.

Painting a dire picture of holiday travel won’t help the 71 per cent of Canadians who, according to the Travelocity.ca poll, plan to go ahead with it anyway over the coming weeks. That’s where the Ultimate Holiday Travel Survival Guide comes in. From secure gift-packing and last-minute passport panic to rebooking flights and managing mid-flight meltdowns, it draws on the expertise of travel-industry insiders to help you deal with the most common pitfalls of the season, and offers tips on navigating it with as little stress as possible.

The quietest and cheapest days to fly

“The only tried-and-true quiet day tends to be Dec. 25,” says Travelocity.ca spokesman Keith Nowak. “This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Book an early flight on Christmas Day, and you can be at your destination before the present-opening starts. You can avoid a lot of travel headaches and save hundreds of dollars this way.”

Lauren Reimer, general manager of Expedia Canada, says Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 also tend to be relatively serene and inexpensive. Based on average fares booked on Expedia.ca over the holiday period, the least expensive days are Dec. 25 for return trips and Dec. 31 for departures

If these statutory holidays aren’t viable, Mr. Nowak suggests booking as early as possible, considering alternate airports, and being flexible with your travel dates as ways to save money.

How to pack gifts for air travel

As Ms. Reimer points out, “there’s nothing quite like wrapping presents for friends and family only to have airport security unwrap them.”

Unnecessary packaging in checked luggage can also lead to hundreds of dollars in extra fees. The simple solution: Cover breakable items in bubble wrap and gift-wrap everything after you’ve settled in at your final destination.

Extremely fragile or irreplaceable gifts are best stowed in carry-on. That said, a fine bottle of Scotch won’t make it very far, as it contravenes the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority’s 100 ml limit on liquids.

Mr. Nowak also notes that the overhead bins in airplane cabins tend to become overstuffed with poorly packed gifts. “Think about checking luggage so you don’t have to worry about full bins after boarding.”

Another tip: Avoid packing toys that remotely resemble weapons. “That plastic pirate sword obviously looks fake, but it could still cause a lot of security headaches,” says Matthew Greenspan of the FlightNetwork travel agency in Oakville, Ont. “We suggest shipping these kinds of gifts.”

Speaking of shipping, extra fees for oversize and overweight checked luggage generally kick in around 23 kilograms or 160 centimetres in maximum diameter. Items larger than 300 cm, or heavier than 45 kg, can be rejected altogether. If you’re feeling especially generous this season, consider shipping your gifts or shopping after you’ve arrived.

How to prep children for the airport and flight

A child’s first flight can add to the excitement of the holidays, but like initial Santa encounters it can also be daunting. “It’s important to make sure kids understand as much as possible about the experience ahead of time,” says FlightNetwork’s Allison Eberle, herself a mother of two. “Read them a book about planes, explain the airport ‘obstacle course’ you and your family will have to go through before boarding, and get them excited about what they’ll see when they peek out the cabin window.”

Longer-than-normal airport wait times can be especially taxing, Ms. Reimer adds. “Be sure to fill a small, sturdy backpack or tote with activities and comfort items: Toys, electronics, colouring books, a stuffed animal, a blanket, and even a portable white-noise machine or app that will help them rest.”

What to do if your passport has expired

If you’re reading this en route to the airport, and … oh dear … you can’t believe you didn’t notice it earlier (what with all the work deadlines and gift-shopping and child-wrangling and) … take a deep breath and first consider your destination.

If it’s in Canada, all you need to fly is one piece of valid government-issued photo ID that shows your name, date of birth, and gender; or two pieces of valid government-issued ID, at least one of which shows your name, date of birth and gender.

If it’s an international flight, however, the first call you should make is to the airline. Explain your predicament – it may help keep the change fees in check – and rebook for a future date. That date hinges on your renewal route of choice: Showing up at a passport office in person, and paying $110 extra, will get you a new document by the end of the next business day. You can’t get a passport at the airport.

How to make it to the gate on time

A successful flight starts long before you deplane. Most airlines allow passengers to check in online 24 hours before departure, “and it’s a good idea to do so to avoid long wait times at the airport,” Ms. Reimer advises.

You’ll still need to check your baggage (if you’re not going carry-on only) and make it through busy security checkpoints, though, so “arriving at the airport three hours ahead of time for international flights, and two hours for domestic flights, should give you more than enough extra time,” she says.

Getting to the airport can also pose challenges, Mr. Nowak points out. “Parking tends to be far more limited than during other times of year, and airport shuttles may be full and slowed by extra traffic and poor driving conditions. So it’s worth reserving a parking space online, or taking an Uber, taxi or public transit instead of driving.”

Mr. Greenspan recommends using apps like Google trips or Tripit to help you get to the airport on time and stay abreast of flight information.

How to avoid getting bumped

Incredibly, you can reach your departure gate in plenty of time and still get “bumped” off an overbooked flight. Bumping happens when an airline sells more seats than are available, ostensibly to ensure a packed plane. If you are bumped, airlines are typically required to put you on a new flight ASAP. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to avoid this mind-boggling injustice:

  • Check in early, as the last passengers to do so are often the first to get bumped.
  • Board when your row is called, as airlines may assume that stragglers are no-shows.
  • Select a seat when you book your ticket, even if it means paying extra. If you can’t even buy a seat, overbooking could be the cause.
  • Book a first-class or business-class ticket (which will definitely mean paying extra).
  • Join the airline’s frequent-flyer program, “as it might see you as a more valuable customer,” Mr. Greenspan says.

What to do if your flight is delayed or cancelled

Because so much of the air travel experience is beyond passengers’ control, “it’s best to prepare for the worst and educate yourself on your rights before you fly,” Mr. Greenspan says. “Check the Canadian Transportation Agency’s list of airlines’ ‘tariff’ pages, which outline passenger rights, so you know what you are entitled to if a flight is delayed or cancelled.”

Generally speaking, if a mechanical problem causes your flight to be cancelled or delayed to the point where you miss a connection – in other words, if the airline is at fault – the agents at the check-in counter will rebook you on the next available flight. If this requires an overnight stay, you’ll either be booked on another airline or provided with accommodations and meal vouchers. However, if bad weather is the culprit, there may not be any compensation. “The airline will work to get you on the next available flight,” Mr. Nowak says, “but there is no guarantee as to when that might be.”

What to do if you miss your flight

You know what they say about the best-laid plans. If your gate closes before you get there, immediately alert an attendant that you’ve missed your flight. You’ll be escorted to a ticket counter, where “you may or may not have to pay in full to be rebooked,” Mr. Greenspan says, “depending on your explanation and the disposition of counter staff.”

This is where the so-called “flat-tire rule” comes in. “Call the airline as soon as you know you’re going to cut it close or miss your flight altogether,” he advises. Explain the unforeseen travel issues surrounding your tardiness, “and the airline might be able to hold the plane or book an available flight later in the day.”

There’s even a glimmer of hope if you fail to alert the airline before your flight departs, he adds. “Get to the airport within two hours of missing a flight, and some U.S. airlines will waive the fare increases and change fees if there’s another available flight that day.”

That’s a big “if,” Mr. Nowak says. Over the holidays, “the next available seat may not be within hours – it could be days.”

What to do if your child has a meltdown on the plane

The aforementioned excitement of a child’s first flight can quickly morph into fear or fury at the first sign of literal or figurative turbulence. Should this happen, FlightNetwork’s Ms. Eberle suggests employing the element of surprise: “Whipping out a new toy or piece of candy could change their mood and calm them down.”

If a tantrum escalates, she suggests walking them to the back of the plane, where there’s more space to comfort them and for them to blow off steam. Plus, the extra background noise will muffle their meltdown.

Offering treats to annoyed adults, she adds, “is a nice, sympathetic gesture. By throwing a few candy canes their way, they might just stop acting like Grinches and get in the holiday spirit.”

What to do if your luggage goes missing

The holiday surge in airline passengers is only exceeded by the jump in gift-filled checked baggage. If yours doesn’t appear on the groaning carousel, head to the baggage-claim help desk to file a report. The airline is responsible for locating your luggage and will ask for the tracking tag you received at check-in. Once it’s located, the airline will ship the luggage to your temporary address. “Be sure to get a phone number and case number, if available, so you can follow up,” Expedia Canada’s Ms. Reimer advises.

You next move? “Be proactive,” Mr. Nowak of Travelocity.ca suggests. “Before stores close for Christmas Day, make a run to get a change of clothes and personal care items. If the luggage doesn’t show up quickly, you will at least have the basics before it is too late.” Depending on your destination and airline, you’ll be reimbursed for reasonable interim expenses after you file a claim.

What to do if your hotel turns out to be a dump

Should you survive a hectic holiday journey only to be unpleasantly surprised by your hotel room, give the property a chance to make it right, says Taylor Cole of Hotels.com. “Immediately tell the front desk about your concerns, as better rooms may be available on site or at a nearby sister property. You can also call your booking company, which can provide relocation and refund assistance.”

What to do if there’s no room at the inn

FlightNetwork’s Mr. Greenspan suggests trying Airbnb if last-minute accommodations are scarce: “You can book rooms, in-law apartments and even entire homes left empty by owners who are out of town themselves.” Another option: Airport hotels eschewed by holiday travellers who tend to stay closer to friends and family.

Like airlines, some hotels overbook their rooms, which means yours could be released to another guest. “If you’re checking in late, contact the hotel to let them know,” Ms. Cole advises. “And if you pay for your room in advance they are more likely to hold on to it.”

Holiday chaos also fuels human error. “Be sure to print out your confirmation e-mail and prepay with a credit card so you have a record of the transaction you can show at the hotel front desk,” Ms. Cole advises. “It may simply be that staff misspelled your name, and the printout will help them locate your booking.”

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