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How You Can Stay Ahead of the Holiday Pack

Sunday, November 23, 2008

As if spending the holidays with the family weren't stressful enough, add the angst of air travel, as painful to swallow as fruitcake. With airport security still on high alert and airlines penny-pinching passengers over checked bags, getting home for a slice of pumpkin pie or Santa's chimney drop can darken any festive mood. To ease the process, we have addressed some of the most common questions concerning holiday travel, from gift wrapping to flying frozen turkeys.

-- Andrea Sachs and Christina Talcott

Q. I'm in charge of bringing the cranberry sauce, mint jelly, rice pudding, Christmas flan, etc. Are these items permissible in carry-on luggage?

A. If the food wiggles, jiggles or dribbles, the Transportation Security Administration says it is a goodie non grata. Unless, of course, you are serving only three ounces of the dish -- to the whole table. The 3-1-1 rule, which covers liquids and gels of all flavors, requires such items to be contained in bottles no larger than three ounces and placed in a quart-size, zip-top clear plastic bag. One caveat: Security officials have the discretion to yea or nay any questionable products. For a comprehensive list of TSA-approved food items, see http://www.tsa.gov.

Conversely, you may pack as many jams and sauces as you wish in your checked bags. Just be sure to swaddle any breakables in bubble wrap or thick insulation material and pack them in the center of your luggage, surrounded by clothes or other cushiony items.

My pie is a bit gloppy. Does that make it a liquid and therefore not permitted onboard?

If it's in a crust, even the gooiest slice of pie is allowed, whether it be blueberry, Boston cream or lemon meringue.

Can I take a frozen turkey or ham onboard?

You can haul any frozen foodstuffs onboard; however, you may not use an ice pack or gel to keep them cold. Ice packs and their ilk are allowed only for medical-related items.

If your flight is short, the meat should stay frozen. For longer distances, stick it in a cooler with ice packs and check it. Or, save yourself the hassle and order the main course ahead of time and have it shipped to your final destination. In addition, if you are spending the holidays abroad and plan to carry your favorite dishes with you, remember that many countries do not permit such edibles as meat, fruit and vegetables to cross their borders. Best to buy there; with a little research, you can often find American products in foreign countries, such as the Thanksgiving American Market in Paris (http://www.thanksgivingparis.com). Or go local: For instance, celebrate a Spanish Christmas with a serrano ham.

No holiday is complete without fine wine or champagne. What's the best way to transport bottles of vino, bubbly and other types of alcohol?

Unless you are serving mini bottles of booze or are traveling internationally and can slip into a duty-free shop for some hard stuff, you must check your liquor. Wrap the bottles well and stick them in your luggage, or box and send them separately. Companies also sell padded carriers that keep bottles secure, such as BottleWise (http://www.bottlewise.com).

Can I wrap gifts that I plan to carry on the plane?

Best to leave them unwrapped. Although it's not a given that security officials will unwrap them, if they are uncertain of the package's contents, they have the right to untie your bows. A good alternative is to wrap the present loosely in tissue paper and place it in a decorative bag. Also, be aware that certain gift-worthy items, such as snow globes, gel candles and baseball bats, are banned onboard.

How can I speed up the security line?

First, be prepared: Wear shoes that easily slip on and off, have easy access to your computer and bagged liquids, so you can quickly transfer them to a tray, and lay off the large metal accessories and other clothing items that might elicit a beep from the metal detectors. In addition, seasoned travelers can make a beeline for the Black Diamond lane, now available at 48 airports, including Dulles. These security areas were created for travelers familiar with TSA regulations and can move swiftly through the queue. For less-streamlined travelers, last week all national airports opened at least one family lane, which caters to individuals and groups who progress at a slower pace (i.e., broods and passengers with special needs). You can also save time by applying to the Registered Traveler Program (http://www.tsa.gov/approach/rt/index.shtm or www.flyclear.com), which fast-tracks prescreened passengers. The private-sector program is available at Dulles, among other select airports.

How can I get around paying big baggage fees?

Whether you're bringing the turducken and pie or presents for the family, you might have to check bags, especially if you're transporting anything that can't go in carry-on luggage. Most times, airline baggage fees are still lower than shipping suitcases heavy with presents. Seek out the few carriers that still offer free checked bags, such as Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America. If your airline does charge extra for checked baggage, find out if it offers a discount to customers who pay for baggage in advance, the way United does. And don't let the frenzy of the holidays make you forget to pack conservatively; take only what you need.

If you've got time to ship packages via ground service, you can save yourself the hassle of schlepping those jars of candied yams or the heavy bestsellers you're giving out this year. Of course, we don't recommend shipping that frozen turkey! Here are a few resources:

U.S. Postal Service (800-275-8777, http://www.usps.com); DHL (800-225-5345, http://www.dhl.com); FedEx (800-463-3339, http://www.fedex.com) and UPS (800-742-5877, http://www.ups.com). Luggage delivery services include Luggage Express (866-744-7224, http://www.travellighter.com); Luggage Forward (866-416-7447, http://www.luggageforward.com) and Luggage Free (800-361-6871; http://www.luggagefree.com).

In addition, United Airlines has recently partnered with FedEx to offer Door-to-Door Baggage Delivery; starting at $149 per bag, FedEx will pick up your luggage at your home or office and deliver it to your final destination, as long as it's in the continental United States.

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