Over the River and Through the Woods… Staying Sane During the Holiday Travel Season

I’ve given up traveling for the holidays. Instead, I head to Florida after Thanksgiving and before Christmas — taking advantage of some of the lowest fares of the year. While I missed the busiest holiday times, that didn’t mean my travel was without obstacles. At times, it felt a little like I was living “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

When I woke up on the day of my departure to rain, I knew things might not go smoothly. Rain might be meh in many places in the country, but in San Diego it’s an issue. I managed to coax my rain-averse dog out for a walk before depositing him with my neighbors, and was lucky enough to sprint to my Lyft in between heavy showers. So far so good.

After breezing through security, I noticed right away that the planes were landing and taking off in the opposite direction than they usually do. On most days, landings and takeoffs are to the west, so departures fly over the ocean before (usually) turning toward their destination. Today, that was reversed; the planes were landing and taking off to the east.

According to an article from the San Diego Union-Tribune, 95.4 percent of takeoffs are westward. The “flip” takes place when visibility drops below two miles or the ceiling drops below 700 feet, or if tail winds exceed ten miles an hour.

Because this reversal is so unusual, it negatively affects air traffic control and slows everything down. Our aircraft landed late, so we boarded late — and the boarding process was exacerbated by what the gate agent said were more wheelchairs than he’d ever seen for one flight.

I settled into my exit row seat and assumed we would take off imminently, but no. We pushed back and started to taxi toward the runway, but hadn’t gotten too far when we stopped. After a few minutes, the pilot explained the issues being caused by the eastbound takeoffs and said we were eighth in line to depart. Eighth! That might be usual at O’Hare or other big airports, but it’s almost unheard of in San Diego.

We were airborne more than an hour after our scheduled departure time, but people relaxed when they learned the flying to time to Tampa was just three hours and 40 minutes. We’d saved about 15 minutes by not having to take off to the west and turn around. The flight was uneventful and landed just 15 minutes later than scheduled — and that was when the “fun” really started for me.

As soon as turned on my cell phone, I saw a message from my mom that started with, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this just as you’ve arrived…” Yikes, did someone die while I was in the air? No, it wasn’t that alarming, but my mom was a little under the weather and didn’t feel up to the 27-mile drive to the airport. She asked me to take an Uber or Lyft to her place, which was no problem. Or so I thought.

Once I got off the plane, I scheduled a Lyft pickup, and received the message that the driver would be there in three minutes and wait just five minutes for me. No worries, since the Tampa airport has trams that whisk you from the airsides to main terminal, and the arrivals area is just a short escalator ride down. I’ve probably flown in and out of that airport more than any other, never having an issue, so I was unprepared for what came next.

One of the two trams in Airside C was out of service, so we waited for the other one. It arrived after a couple minutes and we piled in. The doors shut, but nothing happened. It didn’t move. The doors opened again and more people came on. The doors shut, but we were still stuck. I was panicking that my Lyft driver would leave.

No one ever came to assist us, but we soon figured there must be a way to walk to the terminal, and there was — using an emergency exit. It wasn’t too long of a walk, perhaps the length of a football field, but it certainly took more time to traverse by foot than tram. I wondered if my Lyft would still be there.

As I exited the terminal, I saw a black Hyundai — the vehicle I was looking for — and immediately went to check that the license plate number matched the one I’d been sent. That was not an easy as it sounds — since Florida is one of the states that doesn’t require front license plates. I had to walk around to the rear of the car to confirm I would be getting into the right vehicle.

The driver seemed nice enough, but he had a problem confirming he had picked me up. He fiddled around with his phone for a while and finally ended up driving around the arrivals area again until something “clicked” and we were on our way. I called my mom to let her know I was en route — and noticed the driver was not in the correct lane to exit onto 275 south toward St. Petersburg. While I’ve not driven in the Tampa area, I’ve been there enough that I know how to get to my mom’s place from the airport.

With a light tone, noting I didn’t want to be a backseat driver, I suggested the driver merge over to be able to take the correct highway. He seemed surprised. “Not toward Clearwater?” No, I said, we’re not headed that way. Luckily, he listened to me and we were soon on the long Howard Franklin Bridge that connects Tampa with St. Petersburg.

As we neared where we needed to exit, I noticed the driver wasn’t merging to the right, so I prompted him to do so. Needless to say, I was relieved when we finally got to my mom’s. Guess what I learned then? It was his first shift driving a Lyft! He lived in Tampa and hadn’t spent any time in St. Petersburg or the beach cities.

To put a cherry on the sundae of my somewhat frustrating day of travel, after we used the directory at the front of my mom’s condo to call her so she could let us in — and I heard the “bzzzz” — the boom barrier didn’t rise. It was close to her building, so I said I’d just walk, and the driver could be on his way back to Tampa. While I felt a bit frazzled, I got there safely, which in the end is what counts.

As the late December holidays draw near, millions of people will be getting ready to travel to see family and friends near and far. The “near” might not be a problem, but the “far,” as illustrated by my story, can be frustrating. Here are some tips to help keep you sane from Busbud:

1. Choose your destination wisely. No one ever goes there? You should go! Traveling to the most popular destinations means guaranteed chaos and holiday madness. Unless you’re stuck traveling to a precise location to see someone in particular, avoid top holiday destinations like the plague.

2. Outsmart the crowds with your travel plans. Travel on unpopular days. During the holidays, most people have similar vacation dates, which means many travel on the same days to get the most out of their time off. This translates into expensive fares and a higher density of travelers. To avoid some of the holiday craze, figure out when people are most likely to travel, and if you can, work your holiday travel schedule around these popular days. You’ll pay less for your ticket, and won’t face as many crowds.

Also consider choosing alternate airports, avoiding connections, traveling early or late, traveling by bus instead of plane, and giving yourself a few buffer days so you don’t miss an important event due to cancellations or extended trips.

3. Arrive early. Getting to the airport ahead of time usually means you won’t have to wait in line for too long. Yes, you’ll have more time to kill before hopping on your flight, but at least you’ll be waiting close to your gate — perhaps sipping a drink — rather than spending your time lining up with a hoard of anxious people. And (since you’re early), even if there are major delays at security, you won’t be running for your life hoping you don’t miss your flight.

4. Make backup plans. Whatever you’re planning, the most important holiday travel tip to follow is to have a backup plan for everything. That includes travel plans, travel itinerary, travel dates, travel accommodations, travel bag, travel entertainment, planned activities, etc. Make a plan A, B and perhaps even C, so whatever happens with plan A, and even plan B, you can still make it to your destination.

5. Pack smart and ship your gifts. The less you pack, the better. If you’re traveling home with presents, consider shipping them. Consider using Amazon’s gift wrapping option and send the gifts directly to your destination. Your packages will be there when you arrive, and you won’t have to worry about carrying a heavy suitcase or breaking fragile gifts.

If you can’t avoid bringing gifts, consider the following rules:

  1. If you fly, don’t wrap your gifts ahead of time, as you may have to unwrap them at security.

  2. Make sure breakable items are well secured.

  3. If you’re bringing food or booze, check the local regulations to make sure you’re not breaking any laws.

Also, if you can, travel with carryon-sized bags to avoid delays claiming your baggage, and be able to keep an eye on your belongings wherever you go. The less you have, the less you have to worry about.

6. Charge devices and download ahead of time. If you download before you go (movies, TV episodes, podcasts, audio books, etc.), and make sure you’re at 100 percent battery at the start, you’ll have a library of entertainment at your hands during your travel. Pack a portable charger and take advantage of opportunities to “juice up” during connections or maybe even on board.

7. Be prepared for anything! Bring your own snacks and water (the latter purchased after clearing airport security). This way, you’re not at the mercy of the flight attendants to wet your whistle and don’t have to pay for onboard snacks, if they’re even available. Pack snacks that are high in protein and nonperishable to keep you feeling great on your journey: almonds, trail mix, granola or protein bars, or jerky.

8. Keep calm and smile. If you go into your holiday trip prepared for bumps in the road, lengthy travel times, and an abundance of crowds, you’re more likely to keep your cool throughout the journey. Stay Zen during the trip by downloading meditation apps like InsightTimer or HeadSpace, which offer tons of free guided meditations. You can also try doing some seated deep-breathing exercises or easy stretches.

9. Remember, it’s the holidays. If you’re planning some major touristy activities, check — and double-check — hours of operation. Perhaps even call ahead to make sure the places you’re planning to visit are really open. Although regular hours are usually posted on websites, holiday hours are not always updated and you might end up being disappointed.

10. Prepare for peace of mind. Depending on where you live, you might be a little worried about leaving your home. Holidays tend to see a spike in burglaries, as lots of people are away. Don’t be shy to ask friends or family to pop by regularly, switch on a few lights and water the plants. Or even better, rent out your place and make a few extra bucks while you’re gone.

This year our contribution to holiday travel was picking one lucky person to win a $500 Southwest Airlines gift card so they could go Home for the Holidays! If you missed it, visit us at www.joyholidayfamily.com and fill out the contact form and reference the word “Contests” to receive notice of our many contests and giveaways.

Happy Holidays! #JoyHolidayFamily #JHolidayFamily

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