Secrets for navigating crowded skies and clogged roads during the holidays

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By Christopher Elliott

Did you know that the average American will spend more than seven hours getting somewhere for the holidays? At least that’s what a new survey by SC Johnson suggests.

“You’ll likely encounter traffic,” says Steven Orma, a clinical psychologist and mental health expert who specializes in treating stress. “You’ll probably encounter rude passengers. Delays may happen.”

No doubt. Nearly 47 million Americans took to the highways for Thanksgiving this year, making it the busiest driving holiday in eight years, according to AAA. Expect more of the same for Christmas, fueled by a healthy economy and low fuel prices. (Related: It’s time for an Uber of the skies.)

The skies will be crowded, too, as 45 million customers are predicted to fly during the 19-day period from just before Christmas to just after New Year’s Day, an increase of approximately 2 percent, says the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group. (Here’s how to buy your next airline ticket.)

It doesn’t have to be seven hours of torture. Here are the most common holiday travel flash points, and how to handle them.

Pack early and light

There’s never enough room for your luggage, no matter which mode of transportation you choose. That’s because inexperienced travelers overpack, and they wait until the last minute to squeeze everything into their carry-on. Don’t be that person, says Tim Griffin, an airline pilot who runs a workshop that treats fear of flying. “Pack a few days early,” he recommends. “Rushing around packing the night before while you are already anxious will only add to the stress.”

Bring toys with on the holiday

Leaving early or later to avoid the crush of cars remains the best advice for motorists. Dave Blackmer, who works for a health care company in Salt Lake City, offers this irreverent tip for destressing: “We have a family tradition of keeping bubbles in the car, so we can brighten our day when we’re stuck in traffic,” he says. “You’d be surprised how much fun you can have by blowing bubbles and how much people band together when they see the simplicity of bubbles floating by.” Other recommended destressing toys include Wiffle balls, coloring books (they have them for adults now) and relaxation CDs.

Say a prayer

Yes, the airport is going to be a nuthouse if you’re flying just before a major holiday — no two ways about it. The pre-holiday strike by baggage handlers at seven major U.S. airports didn’t make anyone feel better. Maybe we should all say a prayer. At least that’s the recommendation of Ros Banks, who works for a vacation rental company in Berlin. “Find the prayer room,” she says. “If you find yourself in need of some quiet time for thinking or reflection, then go there.” Banks says you should treat these interfaith worship areas “with the utmost respect.” You will probably find serenity.

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If you’re flying, here’s a little practical advice: Print your boarding pass, and check to make sure your flight is leaving on time. Check again a few hours before your scheduled departure. Too many inexperienced travelers forget. One more thing: Don’t forget to breathe. That’s what Micah Mortali, director of the Kripalu Schools of Yoga and Ayurveda in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, told me. Mortali recommends the neck roll, which you can do in your airline seat. “As you inhale, roll the right ear toward your right shoulder,” he explains. “As you exhale, roll the chin back down to center. Inhale as you roll the left ear to the left shoulder. Exhale down to center, and repeat as desired.” Ah, I feel much better already.

Out is inn

Staying with family can amp up stress levels. I know a thing or two about that. “It can be well worth the expense to have your own space by staying at a nearby hotel or B&B,” advises Hilary Stockton, the CEO of a luxury travel company. “Balance family holiday gatherings with some time to yourself, relaxing in the hotel pool or with a spa massage.”

Take care of yourself during the holidays

Perhaps the best way to cope with holiday stress is to mind your behavior. Mostly, be kind to yourself. “Make healthy choices to reduce stress levels,” says Mike Kelly, CEO of On Call International, a travel risk management provider. “Don’t indulge in an airport drink or road trip latte, as flying and traveling dehydrate the body. Stay as active as possible, taking frequent breaks when driving long distances, or stretching during a flight.”

If you treat yourself well, it’s easier to treat those around you well. When that happens, everyone has a great holiday trip.

How to behave on your holiday trip

Be nice. “Everyone is trying to see their loved ones and enjoy the holidays,” says Elizabeth McCormick, president of Uniglobe Travel Designers, a travel agency. “Kindness always prevails over rudeness.”

No yelling. A recent poll of travelers by Homewood Suites and Home2Suites found one-third of respondents admitted to yelling at a total stranger when traveling. Don’t be that person. Raised voices will just ruin everyone’s holiday trip.

Remember the four-second rule. When you find yourself getting annoyed and frustrated by a situation, close your eyes, says Achim Nowak, author of The Moment (New Page Books) and interpersonal communication expert. Wait four seconds. “When you open your eyes, the world will look different to you,” he says. “Guaranteed.” Works for any holiday travel problem — except when you’re driving a car, of course.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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