Many Americans will be taking advantage of the winter holidays to visit far-off family or make a trip to a sunny clime. During the Christmas and New Year's holiday period, long-distance travel can grow by as much as 23 percent compared with the rest of the year, the U.S. Department of Transportation says. Forethought can make those trips a pleasure instead of a trying adventure into the unknown.
Hit the road
About 90 percent of holiday travelers will drive — so watch out.
You'd think it would be obvious, but don't travel during winter storms, the Virginia Department of Transportation says.
"If it is not a life-safety issue, stay off the roads," VDOT says, noting that about 70 percent of deaths related to ice and snow occur in automobiles.
"If you set out with no preparation and no flexibility to be delayed," says Martha Mitchell Meade with the AAA Mid-Atlantic travel organization, "you're setting yourself up for preventable frustration."
Winter is harder on cars: hoses crack, belts will break and batteries die, she notes. When the temperature hits 0 degrees, a car's battery loses about 60 percent of its strength, at the same time engines need twice the power to start, AAA says, recommending that you have your battery checked if it's more than 2 years old.
Cars can be targets for thieves: Put valuables underneath your seats, the Virginia State Police reminds travelers.
If your car breaks down, the agency advises, turn on the flashers, lock your doors and get as far off the road as you can. Call #77 for police assistance.
It's the weather
Nothing influences travel during the winter like weather in the notoriously storm-prone United States. Snowstorms, icing, high winds, heavy rains — all can block roads, shut down airports and stop trains. And stormy weather can occur anytime during winter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.
So it pays for travelers to check the weather forecast for their trip, all along their route. And if that forecast says the weather's going to be bad, avoid it.
Timing is everything
"To me, it's time more than anything else," said Richmond International Airport spokesman Troy Bell. "It's critical around the holidays to allow enough time" to make your flight without elevating your blood pressure.
"There's no way you can show up at this airport during the busy holiday period less than an hour before your flight and expect you can get through."
Arrive at the airport or bus station at least two hours before your scheduled departure time, officials recommend.
Amtrak passengers should arrive 45 minutes early if they're departing from a busy train station or if they need to pick up their ticket there, said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole. Otherwise, he said, 20-30 minutes should be plenty of leeway.
Let's fly away
Fly nonstop when you can and avoid the problem of getting stuck at a jammed hub airport.
"Avoid cold-weather hubs," University of Richmond transportation economist George E. Hoffer counsels airline passengers.
If weather blocks the flow of airliners to and from a hub, the disruption ripples through the airline's system.
Large hub airports offer more opportunity to rebook, and flights booked on larger aircraft are less likely to be canceled when weather limits the number of flights an airport can handle, he said.
"Don't be tempted by that great flight to Chicago that has a 45-minute layover," said travel agent Karen Kilyk with Covington International Travel. Such a short layover time invites missing your connecting flight, she says.
Hoffer said, "If the weather's bad, stick close to your cellphone. The airlines anticipate bad weather and will give you opportunity to leave early."
Carry-on bags should contain what you're going to need over the next day, Bell said: cash, prescription medicines, jewelry, and personal electronic devices such as your laptop and cellphone.
Buy travel insurance, Kilyk recommends.
"It often can cover or reimburse you for unexpected expenses," says AAA's Meade, "including lost or stolen luggage, trip cancellation, emergency medical needs and missed flight connections."
Dress for air travel success, RIC airport advises: Before heading to the airport, empty your pockets of loose change, wear minimal jewelry, and avoid wearing a belt so you have fewer items to remove for the metal detector at the TSA security checkpoint. Wear shoes that are easy to slip off and on.
If you're bringing holiday gifts with you, don't wrap them. TSA screening will just have to unwrap them. Better yet, send them through a parcel service like UPS or FedEx.
Limit your carry-on baggage. Airlines generally allow passengers to carry on the plane one bag that fits under the seat or in the overhead bin, and one personal item, such as a purse or briefcase.
Amtrak's passenger trains can be a better bet than air or highway travel in the winter. "Unless it's extremely heavy snow or ice, Amtrak will generally come through," Hoffer said.
Check ahead with Amtrak's (800) USA-RAIL customer service number, or monitor the Amtrak website (www.amtrak.com) before heading out to make sure there are no cancellations or delays.
While Amtrak travelers don't have to go through security screening like airline passengers, the public passenger rail service does have security requirements. For instance, Amtrak customers 18 and older must have valid photo IDs when they do ticket transactions or check baggage.
Carry-on baggage is limited to two pieces per passenger, with few exceptions, Amtrak says, while checked baggage service is available on some services. And on most Amtrak trains, seating is first-come, first served.
While the passenger rail service set a ridership record for its Thanksgiving week ridership, Cole said, "we certainly do have availability for travel" for the winter holidays. "We're still not sold out around Christmas."
On the bus
Taking an intercity bus like Greyhound or Megabus can be the least expensive way to travel, but winter still holds concerns for coach passengers.
Winter storms can disrupt bus service just as they do auto travel.
When that happens, not all tickets on Greyhound are refundable, Lines Inc. spokesman Timothy Stokes says, but the bus company has the capacity to add additional buses to overbooked routes or if buses are delayed.
Meanwhile, low-cost Megabus offers refunds for cancellations only for reasons wholly within its control. Megabus also doesn't have terminal buildings — though its on-street stops are frequently located next to public transportation centers like Main Street Station in Richmond — so you'll be waiting and boarding outside. Bundle up and remember to bring a raincoat or umbrella.
Like the airline industry, Megabus sells seats by reservation and won't give you a refund or credit if you miss your bus. Customers have to be at the Megabus stop at least 15 minutes before their bus is scheduled to leave.
And Megabus doesn't check luggage or provide receipts for passengers' bags carried by the bus.
One parting thought
Kilyk advises: "Bring a good attitude, half the luggage and twice the cash."