Prepare for the rush! Top 10 Thanksgiving travel tips

I made the trek from Washington to Phoenix on Saturday with a puppy in tow, and the signs of peak travel season were already apparent. My flight was completely full, the airport was crowded and the lines were long (which is another reason you should strongly consider TSA PreCheck).

Orbitz recently released data detailing the busiest airports for this Thanksgiving travel season, which is helpful to adequately prepare for your air travel plans. (Full disclosure: I represent Orbitz at my day job.)

They’ve also detailed the best and worst days to fly: If your flight plans take you through an airport on Wednesday, Nov. 25, or Sunday, Nov. 29, you can expect to be in the thick of the heaviest crowds. Travelers flying on Thanksgiving day or Monday, Nov. 30 will have it a bit easier, as those will be the days with the least volume this holiday weekend.

Are you prepared for the rush? Here are the top five tips to ensure your Thanksgiving air travel experience goes as smoothly as possible:

Arrive early. It should go without saying that you need to build extra time into your travel plans this week. Especially if you’re flying with kids or a pet or are planning to check bags, the lines will be longer than usual and confusion will be higher. If Washington on Saturday was any indication, airline staff will be inundated with questions from infrequent travelers, and the higher travel volume will surely mean delays at each step of the process.

Be prepared for delays. Especially with winter storm Bella, delays and cancellations are already rolling in. Even if you aren’t in the path of inclement weather, issues at other airports can still affect your trip, so be sure to stay up-to-date on your flight status.

Hold on to your luggage claim ticket. With the influx of travelers and checked baggage, there’s a higher than normal chance that someone else might pick up your bag by mistake. In fact, I saw a number of families in Phoenix allowing their children to pick up bags from the carousel. Be sure to double-check that the bag you take matches the claim ticket you received when you checked it — and hold on to that ticket in case something happens to your bag. It will make your life easier when it comes time to try and find it.

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Coordinate with your loved ones. With the high possibility of delays, cancellations and crowds, it will be important to keep your loved ones up to date on your journey, especially if they’re planning to pick you up from the airport. Share your flight plans and tell them to track your flight on Flight Stats so they can receive up-to-the-minute information on your whereabouts, and you can relax instead of struggling to get a signal and send that update. Traveling with kids? Put one of your business cards in each child’s pants pocket and/or backpack, with a circle around the best phone number to reach you. Make sure the child knows where the cards are. If you get separated, even a child as young as five years old can show the card to a grown-up who can call you.

Remain calm. Things don’t always go as planned, and that’s okay. If something happens that threatens your arrival in time for turkey, remember that everyone else is under just as much stress trying to get to their destination. Travel industry employees, from the flight attendants to the luggage handlers, all want to be with their families, too. A little kindness in the face of stress can go a long way.

Not flying this holiday season? You’re not alone. In fact, AAA found that 42 million Americans will hit the road this Thanksgiving, compared to just 3.6 million air travelers — making driving the most popular mode of transportation by a landslide. Especially with gas prices so low, more Americans will take advantage of the road this year, which means more congestion and traffic.

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If you’re driving to your holiday destination, safety should be at the front of your mind. Driving might seem routine, but the last thing you want is to be caught unprepared. With that in mind, here are the top five road-trip tips to keep you safe:

Get enough sleep. You’ll hear from a million sources about the dangers of intoxicated or distracted driving during the holiday season, and those dangers are very real. But driving while tired is just as dangerous. In fact, the CDC recently found that 1 in 25 adult drivers report having fallen asleep at the wheel in the previous 30 days. Especially during the busy holiday season, don’t put getting there quickly above getting there safely. Take frequent breaks, get enough sleep and, if necessary, plan to switch off between multiple (well rested) drivers during your trip.

Know what to do if you get stuck. If you get stuck in winter weather, your instinct might be to leave the car and find help. Don’t. First of all, you should always be prepared for weather emergencies, which means keeping an emergency preparedness kit in the trunk (water, snacks, blankets, flashlights, road flares, first aid and a brightly colored cloth).

Don’t wait to fill up on gas when your tank is getting low — the less fuel you have, the more likely your fuel line is to freeze. Be sure you have enough windshield washer fluid. If you do get stuck, stay in the car. You can start the car and use the heater for approximately 10 minutes each hour. Keep the exhaust pipe clear so fumes won’t back up into the car, and leave the overhead light on while the engine is running to help rescuers see your vehicle. Use your flares and bright colored cloth to draw attention to your vehicle, and keep one window (away from the blowing wind) slightly open in order to let air in.

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Don’t drive through water. That puddle might look surmountable and I know the turkey is tantalizing, but if you see standing or moving water turn around. It doesn’t take much to flood an engine, and you’d be surprised at how little moving water it takes for a car to float away. It’s not worth trying.

Know your route options. Don’t leave navigation up to Aunt Gertrude and her proven “shortcut.” Check out your route options (Google Maps, Waze, iPhone Maps, Garmin, a regular old map — whatever floats your boat) before you go. Check traffic conditions. Get familiar with your preferred route and a few alternate routes before you go. You don’t want to get stuck at night trying to blindly follow GPS instructions (which, by the way, can steer you wrong) without a clue as to even a general sense of what to do. Trust me.

Pack your patience and a good entertainment plan. Chances are, you’re going to hit some kind of traffic. Pick out a few audio books in advance to keep you entertained. Better yet, if you haven’t listened to a podcast yet, now is a good time to check out the many options available. I personally recommend Radio Lab, This American Life, TED Radio Hour, and of course — if you missed the boat during all of the hype — Serial. Serial got us through a 6-hour-plus drive from Washington, D.C., to the Hudson Valley last Christmas, and we enjoyed it so much we actually drove around locally for 15 minutes after arriving in order to finish the series.

Good luck in your travels this Thanksgiving. Stay safe, remain calm and remember to pack a pair of stretchy pants!

Heather Dratler

Lover of all things travel and hospitality, both from a personal and professional standpoint. A PR pro by day, I've represented a wide variety of clients in the travel industry since 2008. Sharing my passion for and knowledge of travel makes me happy. Cornell University graduate. Follow me on Twitter @HeatherLori7.

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