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2012 Holiday Travel Guide: Surviving Storms, Crowds & Delays

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According to AAA, 93.3 million people will travel over the holidays this year, a 1.6 percent rise from last season. Holiday air travel will be up around 4.5 percent, but 90 percent will travel by car, meaning the nightmare you expect from airports will be exponentially worse on the highways.  The average distance traveled by Americans is expected to be 760 miles.

Christmas and New Year’s season continues to be unaffected by gas prices…people are still going to go even if they skyrocket. Luckily, the opposite is projected, as average gas prices are estimated to drop through the end of the month and come out between $3.20 and $3.40 a gallon on New Year’s Day. So whether you’re hitting the roads or the skies to celebrate the holidays, here are a few tips to remember for keeping your travel as safe and stress-free as possible.

1.    Prep the Car

Around 25 percent of weather-related automobile accidents occur in snowy or icy conditions. The winter forecast for the holiday travel period will bring above-normal snowfall in many parts of the country. Plan ahead and prepare before you leave by taking care of any auto maintenance issues now.

2.   Stay Updated

As winter weather storms on, make sure you stay updated by checking local news and official airport websites. Download airline apps now, to receive to the minute information on your flight.

Yesterday, Colorado was hard hit with a snow storm which is now headed for Chicago.  As the Windy City braces for its first big blizzard of the season, O’Hare and Midway are already experiencing a storm of their own, as more than 500 flights have been canceled in advance between the two airports. Southwest Airlines canceled all of its flights scheduled after 4:30 pm today out of Midway. The East Coast is also expecting a weekend storm bringing a mix of rain and snow and wind gusts up to 60 mph.

The top airports experiencing delays reported 240  flights canceled at (ORD) Chicago O’Hare International Airport, 78  flights canceled at (MDW) Chicago Midway International Airport, 97  flights canceled at (MCI) Kansas City International Airport, 36  flights canceled at (DTW) Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and 33  flights canceled at (MSP) Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport.

According to FlightStats, in a study of data from the past three years of holiday travel, passengers are twice as likely to experience excessive delays when traveling between the hours of 3 pm to 9 pm versus morning hours. This is something to keep in mind for last-minute booking or changes.

3. Have a Plan B

Travel smart and bring a change of clothes in your carry-on. You can only check the weather so many times. The reality is, there’s always a chance you could be stranded for longer than expected. Brush up on our tips for surviving in the airport without breaking the bank…if you know you’re headed for a day of delays, holiday treats can’t hurt!

Save a couple hotel phone numbers in all connecting cities before you leave, where you might not have family or friends to save you. If your flight gets cancelled at an odd hour, or even a good hour, it will save you the hassle of searching the Internet when you can’t find Wi-Fi. Remember our tips on how to find affordable travel accommodations and save money during a hotel stay. If you aren’t the proactive type, and end up searching on the go, make sure you stay cyber safe and don’t overpay for a connection.

4.   Keep Calm and Carry-On

More bags are lost over the holiday season, and getting it back will be a bigger than ever hassle. Carry on or ship if flying domestically, and avoid the worry or chance of loosing Santa’s precious belongings. Be careful though, you cannot bring wrapped gifts through TSA security in most major airports. Pack your wrapping paper, or prepare to open presents very early.

5. Watch the Clock

If you’re on the road, timing is one thing, but missing a flight over the next couple weeks can be a death sentence. With increased booking numbers , it might not be so easy to standby for the next flight. Allow yourself extra time in transit, and plenty of time in the airport, especially at major hubs like Chicago, JFK, LAX or Miami. If you get lucky and make it through security early, have a festive cocktail…it is a holiday!

6. Catch the Bus

If roads are dangerous, it may be more stress free to take a bus or train if its available to you. Be mindful that while they try their best to uphold schedules, bus companies cannot guarantee they won’t have weather delays or cancellations either. Greyhound bus delays are currently in effect on routes between Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

7. Know When to Throw in the Towel

If your home base, connection or destination is being hard hit by a storm, and delays are already occurring, think about proactively changing your travel plans. Right now, most airlines are waving travel fees through the Midwest. United is waving change fees and fare differences for travel scheduled between December 19-21 through ORD, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Grand Rapids, Lincoln, Madison, Moline, Milwaukee, Omaha, and Wichita. If you are traveling on American to, through or from ORD, you can reissue your December 19-20 tickets to travel December 21-25 with no fee. If you are traveling to or from several other Midwestern cities (Cedar Rapids, Madison, etc), you can reissue tickets scheduled from December 20-21 to fly December 22-25 at no charge. Southwest has canceled most Thursday flights to and from Midway, Kansas City and Milwaukee and you can rebook at no charge.

For more survival tips, check out Alyssa Caverley’s  Holiday Travel How-To series including how to find affordable accommodations,  how to survive a holiday road trip, how to find free Wi-Fi, how to pack everything into a carry-on and when to upgrade an economy seat.

By Courtney Crockett for PeterGreenberg.com

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