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7 Ways to Take the Stress Out of Holiday Travel

We gathered advice from the most experienced travelers


If the thought of holiday travel has you in a panic, there’s good reason. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s consistently rank among the busiest long-distance travel periods for Americans, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
 
This year won’t be any different.

“The global travel industry is experiencing a record increase in passengers (and revenues),” says Tom Spagnola, a travel expert with online agency CheapOair. “Economic fears have subsided and unemployment is down,” he says, so more of us will be organizing get-togethers with loved ones.

(MORE: How to Get the Best Deals on Holiday Travel)
 
The sources of holiday travel stress are numerous: Costs escalate during any peak travel period; airplane, train, car rental and hotel reservations are harder to come by; weather conditions can be unpredictable and crowds, lines and delays are endemic at airports and on the road. Plus, let’s face it: For multigenerational families, it can be emotionally taxing to spend “quality time” together when they are used to being apart.
 
Next Avenue spoke to seasoned travelers, travel agents and other experts to solicit advice on ways to reduce the stress associated with holiday travel, especially with your family. Here are their seven suggestions:
 
1. Make Plans Sooner Rather Than Later
 
“Because there is limited availability, you need to nail down as soon as possible when everyone can leave and return, and how flexible their dates are,” says travel advisor Judy Nidetz of Travel Experts in Chicago, Ill.
 
“Fares are only going up, so there are no real last-minute deals,” says adviser Laurie Robinson of Protravel in New York, N.Y.. “To wait until the last minute in hopes of getting a deal just creates more stress in terms of getting everything organized at the last minute.” 
 
2. Manage Expectations
 
No vacation is ever perfect, so don’t overpromise. Remind everyone (including yourself) that there will be bumps in the proverbial road: Bags get lost, flights get canceled and people (even those you love) say and do the wrong things.
 
“With grown kids who have their own social agendas, I try to limit the number of events I count on them attending,” says Mary Dell Harrington of Larchmont, N.Y., an empty nester and co-author of the blog Grown and Flown. “Better to make it clear when the one ‘must-attend’ family dinner is scheduled and loosen the reigns on other smaller, less significant gatherings.”
 
Hans Meyer, a social worker at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas, suggests “playing forward” the holiday visit by mentally envisioning what it might be like in comparison to past visits. “When we have an idealized view of our family, it’s easy to lose sight of our previous experiences returning home,” he says. If Aunt Martha has always grated on your nerves, things aren't likely to be any different this year.
 
3. Make it a Team Effort
 
To the extent possible, allow everyone a voice in planning. When people have had a say, they’re more likely to feel satisfied.
 
Multigenerational groups, in particular, have a wide range of needs, interests and energy levels: Older grandparents may have health and/or mobility issues; active teenagers and young adults will be seeking age-appropriate activities and entertainment and young children and infants may require naps, special diets, cribs and extra gear.
 
“If the night owls can howl with the moon but the babies and their parents can rise with the roosters, that significantly reduces stress,” says Kathy Bernstein, a travel agent with Protravel in Chicago.
 
Remember, too, that a particular family member’s needs may change from year to year. Although Grandma has hosted dinner at her house for 20 years, she may no longer be able to shop, prepare and clean up for a large crew. Those with demanding careers may need to curtail the length of holiday vacations to conserve leave for other times during the year.
 
4. Designate a Leader
 
Ultimately, one individual needs to make final decisions and delegate tasks. According to a recent survey conducted by HomeAway.com, an online marketplace for vacation rentals, the middle generation (travelers age 35 to 54) tends to take the lead when it comes to planning (and often, paying) for multigenerational travel.
 
If no natural leader or expertise emerges, it may be more efficient and less stressful to outsource the role: Groups can turn to travel agents/advisers for planning advice and coordination; they also can help troubleshoot when travel plans go awry.

(MORE: 6 Reasons You Need a Travel Agent)
 
5. Carefully Select a Destination
 
“Some choose destinations where they have been before, so there are fewer surprises,” says Robinson. “Others choose smaller, boutique properties, where they don’t have to compete with the masses for the luxury and amenities they prefer.” 
 
Many families opt for all-inclusive resorts, home or villa rental properties, or plan holiday cruises. At an all-inclusive resort (and all-inclusive cruise lines), everyone knows the cost of the trip upfront and no one needs to sign a tab or reach into his or her pocket each time someone wants a soft drink.
 
The big advantage of any neutral, shared space is that everyone is under the same roof but can also retreat to separate bedrooms. Vacation rental homes often have access to nearby beaches, golf clubs or hotels and can be staffed with chefs, butlers and housekeepers, so no one person is left doing all the work.
 
“For us, if we are going with children and grandchildren, an all-inclusive or cruise is best,“ says frequent traveler Linda Rosenberg, CEO of a behavioral health organization in Washington, D.C. “There is no rigid schedule we all must adhere to. My children are often late, so we can plan separate excursions off the ship or property. And we can even eat at different times and in different restaurants for breakfast and lunch, coming together in the evening.”

(MORE: Why Cruising is the Perfect Multigenerational Vacation)
 
6. Keep an Eye on Costs
 
Not surprisingly, the HomeAway.com survey found that cost is one of the most stressful parts of any multigenerational trip. In some cases, a high earner will bankroll the entire trip or a substantial part of it (for example, pay for accommodations) as a holiday gift. Whatever approach is used, it’s important to develop a realistic and mutually agreed upon budget in advance. Depending on cost, some people may choose to shorten or extend their stay.
 
7. Be Flexible
 
While it’s nice to preserve family traditions, there may be an advantage to creating new ones. Harrington grew up in Texas and her family used to alternate spending the holidays between there and New York. “Three years ago, we discovered and fell in love with St. Simons Island, Georgia, so we now meet there for Christmas. We are overjoyed to escape the cold and, with lots of activities to pick from, our two older kids are never bored (as they were beginning to be at their grandparents house) nor are they running off with friends (as they did at our house).”
 
Also think about off-peak travel dates. “Consider the week after Thanksgiving and before the Christmas holiday peak, which starts around December 15,” says Spangola of CheapOair. “Consumers (especially those with young children and college age kids) are celebrating family holidays in early to mid-January, too, which is much cheaper,” he adds.
 
The Bottom Line
 
Take a deep breath, and try to keep the trip and the holidays in perspective. You will be able to control some, but not all, aspects of your holiday travel. “Treat meeting, seeing and interacting with family more as a treasure and a benefit to be cherished than a burden,” says travel psychologist, Michael Brein. “Simply pause for a moment and realize how short life can be and how truly valuable these relatively rare moments are.” Even with the hassles.
 
 
A Checklist to Anticipate and Avoid Flying Problems
 
Tom Spagnola of CheapOair offers these practical tips to prepare for and handle canceled flights:

  • Download airline apps and sign up for travel advisories
  • Check the weather at your departure and destination points
  • Explore backup plans in the event of harsh weather
  • If your flight is canceled, call the airline directly rather than wait on customer service lines at the airport
  • Allow adequate time for layovers, so you can wait out the weather, if necessary
  • Know your rights for your specific airline in the event of a flight cancellation

Irene S. Levine is a psychologist, lifestyle and travel journalist, and member of the Society of American Travel Writers who produces MoreTimeToTravel.com, a blog offering advice and inspiration for travelers over 50.

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