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A HOLIDAY TRAVEL HELPER
By Joe Brancatelli
November 17, 2010 -- From right about now until well into January, business travelers become strangers in a familiar land. Airports, airplanes, and hotels are suddenly strange places overrun with children, vacationers, and home-for-the-holidays travelers, none of whom seem to know where they're going or how to act.

How do experienced business travelers survive when they are not masters of the domains they usually consider their own? We first addressed the issue three years ago, and all of those tips are still largely valid. But here is updated intelligence and timely tactics for surviving the next 60 days.

Pay Now or Fly Later
Be prepared to pay for full-fare tickets if you haven't already booked your Thanksgiving travel. That's assuming you can even find a seat. As airlines have slashed capacity, demand has picked up a bit, and that has created a scramble for space. Peak Christmas travel dates are also filling up fast, leaving only the full-fare tickets. One notable exception: business-class travel to Europe. Led by Star Alliances carriers Continental, Lufthansa, and United, airlines continue to offer spectacular deals to the continent for the Christmas-New Year period. You may pay as little as $1,800 roundtrip in business class to London, Paris, or dozens of other destinations. Ironically, you won't pay much less to be jammed into the middle seat in coach on some pre-holiday domestic runs.

It's Not Too Late for a "Staycation"
Airlines may be packed, but hotels aren't. With the exception of a few dates (most notably, New Year's Eve), there are terrific bargains between Christmas and the first weekend of the New Year. In fact, you'll find nightly rates for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day among the lowest of the year. So consider a "staycation" in your own hometown or a big city that's an easy drive away. A note for the time-challenged business traveler: Hotels often have pre-Christmas shopping packages that include discounts at some of the city's best malls and shops, free gift wrapping, and even the assistance of a personal shopper.

The Black Hole at Security Checkpoints
Every holiday brings its own unique challenge, and this year's black hole is sure to be the airport security checkpoint. Just in time for the influx of inexperienced, infrequent travelers, the Transportation Security Administration has begun widespread deployment of the controversial "advanced imaging" scanners that create startlingly clear images of your body. Decline the so-called nude-o-scope and you'll receive the TSA's new pat-down: Checkpoint agents using the front of the hand and aggressively searching along your body and up and along your private parts. The double-barreled new security regimen is sure to create delays as first-timers (and some experienced travelers and flight crews) battle the TSA over propriety, privacy, and practices. Leave plenty of extra time to clear the checkpoints.

You're an Army of One
Long before you reach a security checkpoint, however, you should realize that you'll essentially be an army of one at the airport. Airlines have sharply reduced the number of employees that work at ticket counters and other public areas. Lines will be long. One possible solution: Do as much as you can before leaving home. Most airlines now permit online check-in as much as 24 hours before departure. You will be able to print out a boarding pass and arrange for your checked baggage to be quickly deposited at airport "fast bag drop" points.

Understand the Baggage Rules
On domestic flights, carriers now charge $15 to $30 each for checked bags. (The sole exceptions: Southwest Airlines continues to permit two free checked bags, and JetBlue Airways offers one per traveler.) And even then you're permitted to check just two bags at that price, and the luggage can't weigh more than 50 pounds each. The extra-bag and excess-bag fees are rapacious (as much as $150 each) and are being zealously applied by the airlines. And don't assume you can get around those rules by carrying on. Although the government permits you the real-world equivalent of two carry-on bags, airlines are free to set the size limits and are free to restrict you to one carry-on if a flight is crowded. (One exception: Spirit Airlines already limits most travelers to just one carry-on bag.) The rules for international flights differ by destination. Before you fly, check your carrier's policy under the "travel rules" or "baggage" section of its website.

Shipping Is a Viable Option
Regardless of your intellectual or emotional objections to paying for baggage, the holiday is a good time to consider shipping your bags. Both UPS and FedEx accept baggage, and specialists such as LuggageForward.com offer competitive pricing. Besides, you will almost certainly want to ship your presents. The TSA doesn't allow wrapped packages through security checkpoints. And do you really trust that airlines won't lose your gifts if you stash them in checked bags?

Park Off the Airport
Don't risk missing your flight because of a ground delay. Roads to, from, and inside the airport and airport parking lots are clogged with traffic during the holidays, so allow more time than normal. And remember: On-airport parking lots are filled to overflowing during the holiday season. So why drive into the madness? Use an off-airport private lot instead. All offer shuttle service directly to your departure terminal, and some offer interesting perks such as car washes and oil changes. (The best way to find an off-airport lot? Google the term and the name of your home airport.) And trust me on this: Do not rely on friends or family to pick you up or drop you off at the airport. The holiday season is stressful enough. Why dump the extra grief of an airport run on anyone, especially people you care about?

Remember the Basics
Even business travelers sometimes forget the basics in the rush of holiday travel. Make sure carry-on toiletries hit the TSA's 3-1-1 limits. The agency is now enforcing its Secure Flight restrictions, so make sure that your airline documents match the information on your government-approved identification. Don't forget to stock up on water between the security checkpoint and your departure gate. Airline travel is dehydrating and hard-pressed flight attendants won't come through the aisle frequently during crowded holiday flights.

Don't Miss Your Flight
As obvious as it sounds, the one nearly irreplaceable commodity this year will be your airline seat. With load factors hovering in the 80-90 percent range, missing your flight might mean a delay of days since carriers may not have seats to re-accommodate you. The only way to guarantee you don't miss your flight? Leave obscene amounts of extra time—to get to the airport, to get through security, to get to the gate—then make sure you have plenty of diversions (reading material, music, videos, whatever) to fill the waiting time. The only thing worse than wasting time at the airport while you wait for your flight? Wasting time at the airport while you stand by endlessly for a replacement seat.

The Fine Print…
The Choice Hotels group claims that almost 40 percent of Americans say the holidays would be less stressful if visiting relatives stayed in a hotel. Almost two thirds of the people surveyed said they could only handle visiting relatives for three days or less. Needless to say, Choice has a vested interest in directing your relatives to their hotels. But it doesn't mean the information isn't valid.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.