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During the holidays, arrive well before departure, check in and treat yourself to a sit-down meal. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)
During the holidays, arrive well before departure, check in and treat yourself to a sit-down meal. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)

Holiday travel is a nightmare. How do I make it easier? Add to ...

I’ve endured a stocking-full of seasonal airport stresses over the years, including arriving at a jam-packed Christmas Eve terminal without my passport; queuing for two hours to check-in – then spilling a glass of wine over myself; and almost getting trapped in snow-slammed Boston when my Dec. 22 flight home was cancelled.

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But after so many bauble-busting experiences, I’ve developed some strategies for dealing with Yuletide travel. These boil down to two essentials: plan everything like a military campaign and, on the day, adopt a beatific bonhomie that helps you handle any mishap without losing your seasonal marbles. Fake it if you have to.

If you haven’t yet booked or are thinking about next year, bonhomie may not help. When I checked, Toronto to Vancouver Air Canada flights on Dec. 23, for example, were from $1,025 return – $350 more than the same service three weeks later. Consider avoiding hiked fares and heaving airports by travelling on spookily quiet Christmas Day instead.

Also, don’t be tempted by cheaper connecting fares – unless you’re craving more time in furnace-hot terminals reeking with familial desperation. Connections are sometimes unavoidable, of course, but avoid cities often thumped by severe winter weather: adopting a sobbing fetal position will not ensure your delayed plane is deiced any faster.

Alternatively, if you have time, take a seasonal train trek to see the folks. I once cozily trundled from Toronto to Vancouver through snow-draped winter landscapes on Via Rail's Canadian, taking 3 1/2 days to arrive just before Christmas. It wasn’t quite the Polar Express, but it was more magical than a plane crammed with tear-streaked infants.

VIA’s checked baggage allowance was also a bonus: two 23-kilogram bags is twice the normal airline limit. If you’re tempted to try hopping aboard this Christmas, see viarail.ca/deals for late-breaking bargains.

But if you end up flying, avoid packing your presents (unwrapped, of course) and ship them – and your baggage – to your destination via FedEx or specialist companies such as Luggage Free (luggagefree.com). Or, have your online gift purchases shipped directly to your destination for wrapping when you arrive. Both strategies will lighten your load on the day.

Conversely, if you’re hoping to return with a hefty gift haul, pack a smaller collapsible bag in your luggage: you can pay for additional checked bags online on the road.

As for carry-ons, always plan for the worst. I once spent a December night in Chicago when my connection was delayed for 24 hours, triggering a mad shopping spree for essentials. Instead, make your winter season carry-on an overnight bag with snacks, a clothing change and travel-sized toiletries.

But my No. 1 seasonal airport lesson is to arrive early. After checking in online (and double-checking your seat selection), there’s nothing better than swanning around the terminal with time to spare – empty your pockets into your carry-on before leaving home and even security will be a breeze.

Since you’re early, treat yourself to a sit-down meal. Avoid the clamorous food courts and their overpriced Dasani bottles (Tim Hortons water is cheaper) and find a quiet corner in a proper restaurant. Alternatively, this may be the best time of year to splurge on one-time lounge access – I’ll be looking at whether these are worth it in a future column.

Finally, if cancellations strike, don’t just wait in line with the other helpless travellers hoping to rebook. Ensure you have the airline’s number with you – like I said: military-level planning – and you can call directly while you’re queuing. It’s usually a much faster way to get new flights.

Once you’re eventually on-board – with preloaded soothing sounds on your audio device and a whack of Kindle downloads to keep you calm – buy a glass of wine and think about next Christmas. Consider inviting everyone to your place next time around: the money you save on flights will fund a smashing party.

OUR READERS WRITE

  • Go early; cut back whining; things will be slower. Try to put stuff under the seat because the bins are gonna be PACKED. @reidontravel
  • Bring your own snacks (avoid the overpriced fare in airport concessions) and bring your own reusable water bottle. @smallandhungry
  • Bourbon … seriously. 2oz shot bottles in a ziplock bag can go through TSA screening. Makes waiting/ flying better. @awesomehotdogs
  • Be polite no matter how frustrating your day becomes. It makes things much nicer. @TimBracken
  • Keep jewellery and all accessories in your carry-on. Wait until AFTER security to adorn yourself. @MariParc
  • YVR’s impressive art collection would definitely cheer up a Vancouver airport experience for me. @boomergirl50
  • We always like the airport bit … but that may be because the weasels [our children] are older now. @Dtraslerwriting
  • Bring snacks! Great for when flights are delayed and there isn’t time to grab food between connections (it’s also cheaper!). @dailyblender
  • Go early, check bags, pack liquids. No overhead = way less stress. @hiredbelly
  • While stuck in an airport in the midst of the holiday season, it helps to remember: “first world problem.” @bsscreative
  • Splurge on a massage or manicure while you wait for your flight – kill time and feel great! @elisabetheats
  • The Air Canada lounge. All the services – including nicer seating and restrooms. It’s also clean, quiet and relaxing (compared to the gate). @beachsidesuites
  • Check in online and print your boarding passes at home – this will help you move (a little) quicker. @travel_smith
  • Go early! @chengsophia
  • Ship gifts ahead of time and carry on! @mitchellfawcett
  • Pay extra to book seats in advance, often you get priority check-in which means less time in line! Also it might be a good time to pay a little more for a seat in one of the airport lounges! @DreamTravelMag
  • Go super early and sit down and have a proper meal before your flight. It makes the whole journey more enjoyable @kattancock
  • Vodka? :-) @MissAboutTown
  • Lounge access! It’s worth it for a shower, a bit more peace and quiet, WiFi, comfy seats and snacks/food (depending on the lounge). @Chiqee
  • Live in the moment and carry your phone charger. @bkossy
  • Two words: Airport. Bar. Mojito for vacations. Old Fashioned for a business trip – y’know, to make Don Draper proud. @Matt_and_Caro

Send your travel questions to concierge@globeandmail.com.

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