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Want to make travel during harried holidays less of a hassle? Read on

Thinking of holiday travel as an adventure won't make the trip to Grandma's house any easier, but it will steel you for the challenges ahead. And there will be challenges, if not with increasingly unpleasant air travel then with unhappy children in the back seat.

Beginning this Friday — the last day of school before winter break — and continuing through the end of the year, thousands of us will take to planes and automobiles for a holiday vacation. It's the time of year when we yearn to be with far-flung family (or on white-powder ski slopes) and we'll endure lots of irritation to get there. Come January, we'll vow "never again" and envy those folks who slept in their own beds.

But for now, we're planning on hitting the road. Or the skies.

Christmas and New Year's Day fall on Sundays this year, giving many of us consecutive three-day weekends. That's good and bad: more continuous days to have fun, but also more congestion on the roads and at airports.

Janet Zink, director of communication for Tampa International Airport, says that traffic will begin to pick up on Thursday and steadily increase until Christmas weekend. Christmas is likely to be busier than New Year's weekend, Zink says, but traffic will still be heavier than a nonholiday weekend.

Thanksgiving parking demand was up over last year, but Zink says there are likely to be plenty of slots for the December holiday weekends. Rates in the economy garage are $9 a day. Plus, everyone who parks at the airport is eligible to win four tickets to a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game, and TIA now offers car detailing service at valet parking.

Car detailing? No wonder TIA gets high marks among the world's airports. Last month, travel website CNNgo.com ranked TIA as the sixth most-loved airport in the world, the only U.S. facility to make the list. No. 1 was Hong Kong International.

In general, advance preparation makes travel go smoothly. Notice I didn't say perfectly. That's not going to happen. Remember the monster storms of Christmas 2010? They paralyzed the Northeast's airports the day after Christmas. Getting through that mess took massive amounts of patience, not to mention copious quantities of Goldfish crackers.

These days, air travel is a bit of a hold-your-nose-and-go proposition. Cramped cabins, little or no food, baggage fees and long security lines are compounded by the high price of tickets and the creep of nickel-and-dime surcharges. It's enough to make you think the drive from Tampa to Cleveland isn't that bad, until you factor in 20 potty stops and multiple backseat skirmishes.

To make the journey bearable be it by car or plane, we've amassed an arsenal of tips to get you from here to there in one piece. Maybe you'll even have some fun.

BY AIR

Get to the airport at least 90 minutes before departure, especially if you are traveling with a family. Getting through security will take time and there might be extra diligence by screeners because of the volume of travelers. So you have to sit at the gate for an hour? Do some people watching. Read an old-fashioned book or a newfangled e-book. Walk the baby up and down. Repeat.

Watch the weather wherever you are going, and even elsewhere around the country. Okay, the forecasts might be off a bit, but in general they will tell you what clothes and shoes to bring. This will also give you a hint about impending air delays. Don't expect straight answers from airline representatives who want you to be at the airport ready to go whenever the planes are. If you have a clue about the weather, you'll have an idea about how the trip might go.

Don't wrap gifts before you travel or they may be unwrapped at the gate by security.

Travel light if you plan to use public transportation at your destination so you can lug your luggage up and down train station steps and into buses. Unless you have very young children, everyone should be able to carry his or her own stuff.

If you're not checking baggage, don't be an overhead storage hog. Make sure your bag really does fit the size requirement. Besides those roller bags, passengers heading out of Florida are likely to have heavy coats, too, plus purses, laptops and maybe even a bag of gifts.

Have someone drop you at the airport. Longterm parking lots tend to get full around the holidays.

Contact the airlines ahead of time to learn the cost of and guidelines for checking such things as skis, golf clubs, surfboards and bicycles. Some items can be checked and charged as baggage, but oversize items require additional fees.

Make sure your luggage is marked well. Personalized tags are helpful as are colorful ribbons. Seems like everyone has a black bag with wheels these days.

Food. Bring it. Snacks for the kids are a must. Do not expect to get much on the plane. Many galleys don't have milk for babies or microwaves for heating. Think of the experience like post-hurricane survival and depend on yourself. (For those who'll need bottled water to mix formula, buy it after you go through security.) Bring a couple of grocery store plastic bags to corral the trash. That's easier than waiting for flight attendants to come back down the aisle to collect trash. Your 5-year-old might need the tray table for her coloring book.

Entertainment. Bring it. Luckily, there are a lot of personal electronic gizmos that play music, movies and TV shows. Pack headphones so that the folks around you don't have to hear what you're hearing. If you're an adult sitting by a child you don't know, be aware of the content on your screen. Your R-rated movie might not be the best choice.

Pack patience. For people without children, have a little empathy for those struggling with wee ones. For people with kids, remember that not everyone thinks yours are the cutest things ever. Restrict peek-a-boo with the person behind you.

BY CAR

Consider renting a car for your trip if yours guzzles gas or is unreliable. Sometimes, you just want to save the wear on your vehicle. This is a good way to test a car that you might be thinking of buying. Check several rental agencies to find the best rates, which can vary widely by location.

Have your car serviced before you go. Make sure the windshield wipers are good and the fluid levels are where they need to be. Tires need to be checked also. Have an emergency kit, including flashers.

The weather forecast is important for drivers, too. If you are headed to higher elevations, be aware you might need chains for the tires, something many Floridians got rid of when they moved south.

Many cars are equipped with GPS these days, plus lots of us have mobile devices that let travelers access mapping sites such as Mapquest. Still, it's a good idea to sketch out a general route before you take off. Paper maps are good, too.

Make a mental note where you might stop for a meal or a break. Unless you're in a super hurry, it's nice to check out a local restaurant rather than whip through the drive-through.

Bring snacks and drinks, especially if you are traveling with children. Their hunger cycles are unpredictable. You don't want to have to stop every time someone's stomach growls. Be aware, though, that lots of liquids mean increased pit stops. Don't be that parent who won't stop. Be kind. It's not just children who get hungry and thirsty, either.

Build in extra time for the journey, either coming or going, for sightseeing. Get ideas from everyone before you leave about where they might like to stop for an hour or two. Make the drive part of the vacation.

Get comfy. Bring favorite pillows, plus blankets and stuffed animals.

Car games, iPads, iPods and portable DVD players provide entertainment for the backseat gang. Board games, such as Scrabble or Life, are good for nights in hotels. Pack bathing suits, too, even if you are going to Cleveland. Many hotels have indoor, heated pools, offering a great way for everyone to get active after sitting for so long.

Information from AAA and the New York Times News Service is included in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

>> Seat assignments

Are you my mother?

Imagine this scenario: A family of four on a cross country plane trip. Dad and Junior, 5, are in seats together in the back. Mom is a few rows away in a middle seat and Missy, 3, has been assigned a middle seat toward the front.

Now, how's that going to work for everyone? Not well.

Christopher Elliott, ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and author of the Travel Toubleshooter column that runs in the Times, says families are being split up more often because airlines are designating more of their seats as "preferred" and charging extra for them. Families are unlikely to splurge for these special seats, he says.

"We're moving toward the Ryanair/Spirit model, where there's a surcharge for everything," Elliott says.

He recommends that if your family's seats aren't together, arrive early and ask to be reseated. Ticket agents will attempt to make sure your children are with an adult that they know. If this doesn't work, ask to move once you get on the plane.

"Flight attendants know that having a 3-year-old unaccompanied in a middle seat is a disaster waiting to happen. They'll do anything they can to prevent that," he says.

You can also ask other passengers to switch with you, which might be tough if you are negotiating with a middle seat. However, having to give Missy her juice and console her when her ears are popping might be plenty of incentive for the unfamiliar seatmate to switch.

Janet K. Keeler

Want to make travel during harried holidays less of a hassle? Read on 12/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 10, 2011 3:30am]

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