Pack your patience, make preparations for holiday travel

It’s here: The holiday travel season officially starts this week.

Airports, roads, trains and ferries will be as busy or busier than last year. With some patience and preparation, travelers can avoid — or at least minimize — the biggest headaches of getting around during the holidays.

Expect major highways to be packed Wednesday and Thursday. To avoid getting stuck in the worst of the congestion, the state Department of Transportation recommends leaving early in the morning or in the evening. Check the agency’s website (www.wsdot.wa.gov) for more specific details about holiday travel and to check real-time congestion.

A series of strong weather fronts is expected to move across the area through the holiday weekend, creating snow-covered roads in the mountains and windy conditions in the lowlands. Stevens and Snoqualmie passes could receive more than a foot of snow, and drivers heading over the mountains should bring tire chains.

Ferry routes are expected to be busiest Wednesday for westbound routes and Friday for eastbound routes. You can make a reservation and check which routes will be on holiday schedule Thursday online at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.

More than 27.3 million people are expected to fly this week, according to Airlines for America, an air travel industry group. That is a 2.5 percent increase more than last year. The good news is that airlines have increased capacity by a slight bit more, meaning the odds of getting an empty seat next to you just got a tiny bit better.

The most important thing to pack is your common sense, said Beth Blair of The Vacation Gals, a travel website.

If you’re flying, get to the airport early. Blair recommends giving yourself at least three hours for domestic flights during the holiday season, four for international flights.

Leave the mid-calf, lace-up boots at home — dress appropriately for the security lines, Blair said. “And wear socks. Airport security line floors are not clean.”

One way to save time at the airport is by registering for TSA Precheck, which expedites security screening at the airport. Last month, 97 percent of precheck passengers spent five minutes or less in security screening, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Travelers can sign up for TSA Precheck online. However, it does require a background check and an in-person appointment.

Don’t pack prohibited items. If you’re not sure what you can pack, check TSA’s website or its app. Still not sure about a specific item? Send a photo of it to TSA (@AskTSA) via Twitter or Facebook for clarification.

Wrapped gifts are “allowed, but not encouraged,” according to the TSA’s website.

Many travel experts suggest shipping gifts — and even your luggage. It may sound crazy at first, but with airline bag fees going up, it sounds less and less insane.

Keep essential medication, a phone charger and whatever else you cannot do without it in your carry-on luggage, Blair said.

If you’re traveling with kids, bring food, toys and any other essentials. And bring your patience. Traveling with kids is always a roll of the dice. Sometimes things are a breeze. And sometimes they are as crazy as Saigon just before communist tanks rolled into the city: Everyone’s losing their heads, buildings are burning all around and you’d cling to the bottom of a helicopter to get out of there.

When it comes to boarding, everyone can do their part to speed things along by getting on the plane and in their seats as quickly as possible.

Not all overhead bins are created equal. Just because your bag fit on the last plane does not mean it will fit on the next one. Airplane stow bins have increased size in recent years. Boeing introduced its new “space bin” last year, which added significant room on 737s. But plenty of older airplanes still have smaller bins. If you are not sure, call the airline you are traveling on or check its website before you pack.

People traveling with young children can board early. Take advantage of early boarding if you need it.

If you are traveling with very young kids, bring ear plugs for nearby passengers. Feeding infants during takeoff helps prevent painful ear pressure.

Most important, be patient. And be nice to the flight attendants. They can be lifesavers when kids are having a tough flight.

There is no guaranteed trick to getting the cheapest airfare. Buying at least two months in advance for domestic flights and six months for international gives you the best chance to save money, according to a white paper on ticket prices by Expedia, the travel booking website based in Bellevue.

Tickets for domestic flights booked 50 to 100 days before the flight were as much as 19 percent cheaper than the average ticket price, according to Expedia’s analysis.

If you are booking at least three weeks before you fly, “Tuesday appears to remain the best day of the week to find low fares on air travel,” the paper states.

If you are driving, AAA recommends giving your vehicle a quick once-over before you leave. Check the tires, oil level, coolant amount, and the condition of hoses and belts in the engine — which should be off when you inspect it.

Plan your route ahead of time. There are plenty of mobile apps to help keep you on course. Pack an emergency kit, especially if you are traveling during cold weather or in remote areas. AAA recommends that it include a flashlight, batteries, flares or reflective triangles, jumper cables, extra water and a first-aid kit.

The average price of gas in Washington on Sunday was $2.63, according to GasBuddy.com. It was one cent higher in Snohomish County.

Keep your home safe by making it look like you’re still there: set light timers, leave a car in the driveway, and put a hold on mail and newspaper delivery. (To put a vacation hold on The Daily Herald, call subscription services at 425-339-3200.)

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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