Surviving the holiday travel crush while you are watching every penny

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A family plays cards as they wait for a flight.

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Media Services

I wasn’t sure my sister would ever forgive me that Thanksgiving.

We’d inadvertently left my son’s medicine on the bathroom counter where his younger cousin got into it and drank whatever didn’t spill on his shirt. My sister and brother-in-law spent much of that night in the ER with their toddler. (Memo to grandmas: Keep all those pill bottles out of reach.)

Another Thanksgiving weekend, we got back to Chicago with our crew after visiting the relatives to discover that the battery to our minivan was dead — in the airport parking lot. We waited a long time that cold night for AAA. Isn’t holiday travel with the kids fun?

At least gas prices have come down, though AAA just announced the first drop in Thanksgiving travel since 2002. They estimate that 41 million Americans will travel Thanksgiving weekend, most by car but nearly 4.5 million by plane. That’s a modest 1.4 percent decline over last year. AAA experts point to the weak economy as the reason 600,000 fewer will be hitting the road.

And the bad news continues for those who are flying, including those who are flying with infants for the first time. Kayak.com reports that holiday-related travel costs are up 25 percent as a result of the capacity cuts, 9 percent just in the United States, not to mention the fuel surcharges. We’re paying for everything from checked bags to onboard snacks. (Pack your own goodies, along with an empty reusable water bottle or sippy cup you can fill once you are through security. Nalgene makes BPA-free, kid-sized water bottles. Order from www.rei.com.)

Still, you might be able to snag a decent fare for the holidays, if you are flexible about your travel dates. (Can you travel Thanksgiving morning? Christmas Day? Check www.kayak.com or www.sidestep.com to compare fares.) Take the train. Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) lets kids, between the ages of 2 and 15) ride for half price with each paying adult on most routes, and the kids will think it’s an adventure. And you won’t be charged for a suitcase either.

However you are traveling, allow lots of extra time. If you are stressed about missing your flight or train or arriving late for holiday dinner, the kids will get upset too. Check in for flights online and check www.Delaycast.com to see if your flight is on time. (Good news! To ease air traffic congestion, the government is adding express lanes to airspace, which should help.) And book airport parking ahead at www.Aboutairportparking.com. Both are listed among Travel and Leisure’s top online travel resources. See the rest of their picks at www.travelandleisure.com.)

If you are just going for the long holiday weekend, consider traveling with carry-on bags. Even a 5-year-old can wheel his own through the airport. Remember, on most airlines, you will pay $15 per checked bag, more for a second bag, plus there is the real possibility your luggage will get lost. The Department of Transportation reports that more than 9,000 checked bags are misdirected every day.

If your child is flying solo, make sure you have the names, phone numbers and addresses for those picking up your child at the other end. You’ll need to give that to the airline. Also, give your child a card with that information and make sure they know how to reach you. Ask for a gate pass so that you can wait with your child at the gate. Don’t rely on the airline to entertain or feed the kids either. Pack a sandwich, snacks and plenty to entertain your child. Stash a new toy, CD or book in their backpack along with a favorite treat.

If teens are flying on their own, make sure they understand that they’ve got to speak up if they miss a connection so that airline personnel can make sure they’re not stranded. (Yes, that has happened.) Also make sure they have some money and a cell phone.

Have a contest to see who in your gang can pack the most efficiently. Ask your holiday host to get you whatever you’ll need (diapers, wipes, baby food, shampoo), if you won’t have time when you arrive. Just make sure to reimburse them — and bring a nice hostess gift!

At least the Transportation Security Administration is trying to make it easier for families to get through security with designated family lanes that should be at every domestic airport by Thanksgiving weekend. Incidentally, these lanes are also a good bet if you are traveling with medically necessary liquids like insulin or cough medicine. “I didn’t even know about them,” said Tamara Vandeventer, who was flying with her 9-month-old son from New York to Denver.

(Remember to explain to your toddler ahead of time why he or she has to put blankie or their favorite stuffed giraffe through the security belt — so they can get their picture taken. Reassure them that giraffe and blankie will be fine and praise them for cooperating.)

Remind the tweens and teens that they can only bring travel-sized (no more than 3 ounces) hair products and makeup in one quart-sized Ziploc plastic bag. (We’ve dumped lots of “product” at security.

But if you are traveling with babies and toddlers, TSA’s Carrie Harmon notes you can take more formula, breast milk or juice — enough to get you where you are going. Just make sure to put them in a separate bin and tell the security screener, Harmon says. “Some parents don’t realize that all passengers, including children, need to take off their shoes,” she adds.

Check your stroller at the gate. Airlines will allow you to check a stroller and car seat free, but not necessarily both. (Thanks, Southwest, for not charging!) Each airline has different rules so check their Websites.

My advice: buy a seat for your baby or toddler so you can use their car seat onboard. I know you don’t have to pay until they are two, but everyone from the FAA (www.faa.gov/passengers/fly_children/crs) to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends young children be restrained in safety seats, which are much safer in turbulent skies. Your child will also be more comfortable.

Holiday travel is so hectic it’s enough to make you wonder why you left home. Yet, even in this economic climate, more than three-fourths of those polled by TripAdvisor said money concerns haven’t affected their Thanksgiving travel plans. Maybe it’s the guilt: 30 percent told TripAdvisor they feel pressured to spend Thanksgiving with the family.

Who’s got the chocolate turkeys?

(c) 2008 EILEEN OGINTZ DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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