Your guide to smoother holiday travel

Tips for packing, preparing your car for snow and how to deal with airport problems this winter

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)

Travel is stressful year-round, but when you add in the “tripledemic,” gift shopping and all the baggage that comes with visiting your relatives, it can feel especially taxing around the holidays.

It doesn’t help that the whole the country is in an emotionally charged scramble to get home for the holidays, clogging airports, freeways and bus depots. Or that winter weather could strike at any moment. Then there’s the fear of another airline industry meltdown like we saw this summer. But if Thanksgiving week is any indication of the holiday season to come, winter travel should go much smoother.

While you can’t control the climate or the masses or the airlines, you can take some steps to avoid common pitfalls.

Keep winter illness at bay

With RSV, the flu and covid-19 all spreading, staying healthy could be tricky for holiday travelers.

One of the easiest steps you can take to protect yourself from illness is to wash your hands like it’s your job. The CDC says that RSV can survive “for many hours” on hard surfaces and for shorter amounts of time on soft surfaces, including hands. Do it often, and for at least 20 seconds at a time.

Health experts also recommend staying up to date on your vaccines — from flu shots to new omicron-specific boosters (there’s no available vaccine for RSV yet). And in the week before your trip to see family members (particularly elderly loved ones), you can start being cautious by avoiding potentially risky behavior like eating at restaurants indoors, going unmasked in crowded indoor spaces or gathering with large groups of people inside.

During your trip, experts say it’s still a good idea to mask — especially if you’re trying to avoid getting sick and spreading illness to others — even though it’s not required legally in most places anymore. Here’s more of their advice, like if and when you should get a coronavirus test.

How Santa Claus packs for his trip around the world

Pack like a pro, even with coats and gifts

Don’t push packing to the last minute. You’ll end up with a chaotic scene leaving the house, juggling a jumble of tote bags, suitcases and backpacks.

Instead, get started on your packing early with strategies from Jenny Albertini, a Marie Kondo-certified cleaning and organization expert. Some of her best advice: Write down a list of items you need to pack, and check them off as you pack them; don’t worry about packing too little (you can usually buy or borrow something in a pinch when you get to your final destination); bring items that can be used multiple times (as opposed to a pair of shoes you’ll only wear once); and fold your clothing according to the KonMari Method: in long rectangles and stored item next to item, not draped in a stack.

As for traveling with gifts, keep them compact until your get where you’re going then wrap them once you arrive. Don’t travel with an entire roll of wrapping paper; Albertini recommends pre-cutting the paper (plus some for backup) for what you need and folding to store flat in your suitcase. Don’t want to pack gifts at all? Have them shipped.

Let By The Way help you navigate travel dilemmas

Cope with flight disruptions

Flight canceled because of weather? Hit with a massive security line? Airline lost your luggage? All sorts of incidents can derail your travel plans and leave you wallowing in the airport.

It’s best to jump into action right away when things go awry, whether that’s asking for a backup flight that fits your schedule better than your automatic reassignment or getting in line at the customer service desk to get help faster.

However you want to fix your travel day (or just get a refund and just go home), here are our best tips for managing airport meltdowns.

Prepare for driving in dangerous weather

In places with rough winter weather, snowstorms can lead to a higher risk of car accidents, hypothermia, frostbite, carbon monoxide poisoning and even heart attacks from overexertion.

Before you get going on any road trip, check weather reports and sign up for your area’s warning system. To prepare for the worst, pack a kit with essential items to keep in your car in case of emergency. This is a helpful list of what to put in it.

If you do get stuck in the snow, contact the authorities by calling 911 or Google your area’s local number for driver problems (in Virginia, it’s 1-800-FOR-ROAD). Remember that it’s important to stay warm to prevent hypothermia, but you’re only supposed to run your car engine and heater for about 10 minutes each hour, according to FEMA. These are other concerns to keep in mind.

Bring your pets along

Before you hit the road with your animals, triple-check whether your accommodations are truly pet-friendly. Different properties can define the term differently. For example, maybe cats are allowed, but dogs aren’t.

Accommodations could have additional restrictions like weight limits, whether the pet can be left unattended and whether certain pet breeds are banned.

For more information on avoid cleaning charges in rental cars, how to bring your pet on Amtrak and crate training, review this guide.

Everything to know about flying with pets, from people who do it most

Find a last-minute gift

Should you find yourself down to the wire on getting gifts, and don’t have time to order presents like these hotel robes, don’t panic. Consider a gift that will upgrade their next travel experience, like covering the cost of TSA PreCheck or getting them an airport spa gift card. Read more on those, plus five other options, here.

As a last-minute option at the airport, swing by Hudson News to grab some souvenirs from home, like snow globes, shot glasses, magnets, keychains and mugs. They also sell helpful electronics (headphones, portable chargers, etc.) or books.

Holiday gift guide: Travel edition

Escape the typical holiday

Not into your typical holiday routine this year? Lots of people swear by bucking tradition and going on vacation over Christmas. If that sounds up your alley, but you’re not sure where to go, take our quiz to help nail down a destination.

Wherever you go, remember to tip generously and say thanks to the hospitality workers who make travel happen. It’s been a challenging couple of years for people in the industry — from flight attendants to tour guides — and it’s more important than ever to slow down and appreciate their efforts.

María Luisa Paúl and Nathan Diller contributed to this report.