Four Key Questions for Planning a Hassle-Free Flight

OK, admittedly, 'tis the season to be jostled -- in the airport, in stores and most anywhere else we go in urban America before Christmas. With the exception of the mall on the day after Thanksgiving, however, the hassle index has been greatly exaggerated, and that's especially true when it comes to airline travel. In fact, the mythology has been growing for some time that taking a commercial flight before Christmas is akin to volunteering for a root canal. But in most cases, it doesn't have to be that bad. Really! Especially if you follow a few basic steps.

First, do what we do in the cockpit -- use a checklist. Yes, ours is FAA approved and laminated in plastic, but a simple index card or notebook containing a list of what you don't want to forget will save you a lot of anxiety. Just sit down days before with a nice cup of coffee (or spiced tea or heavily spiked eggnog) and think through the upcoming trip, using the following as a rough guide to some key decisions you'll need to make ahead of time.

1. How are you going to get to the airport?

Remember, in most major cities there are door-to-airport van services such as Seattle's Shuttle Express, in which the driver even helps you with your bags, and the fees are usually less than what a cabdriver would charge.

The main point here is to decide whether the convenience of parking at or near the airport is worth the expense. In many cases, you end up spending more to leave your car in the terminal parking lot for a week than what you would pay to use a taxi going and coming. But a key element of planning too many of us ignore until the last minute is how the choice we make in traveling to the airport affects our baggage-handling experience.

Arriving at the gate utterly exhausted or, worse, starting out with a strained back, is not a great way to begin the holidays, but suddenly finding yourself a half-mile from the terminal with 200 pounds of family bags can create all sorts of unpleasant results. Therefore, think it through. What are you carrying and how are you going to get it to the ticket counter or curbside check in? Figure out a workable plan and that's one less thing to worry about.

Another caution about driving to the airport: Even if your airline has curbside check-in service available, you may not be able to use it yourself if you're driving.

Yes, your family members can stand there and wait for the skycap to check their IDs, but the airport police will not look kindly on you leaving your car to wait for the skycap to check you in. Even if you're not traveling alone, since the skycaps can't check bags until they check your ID, nothing will progress until you park and come back, and then you've scuttled the convenience of the curbside check in. If, however, you and your companions know to grab a curbside skycap immediately and have him check your ID before doing anything else, your spouse or significant other can complete the process while you head for the garage.

Obviously, when it comes to the difficulty of checking bags, being dropped off at the airport is better. But even if you arrive by shuttle service, some airports force the driver to drop you and your half ton of luggage a long way from the terminal. Best practice? Call and check on where your airport allows drop-offs before committing to a thinly disguised physical fitness contest, or if you're traveling as a troop, assign bags and wheels and plan an orderly procession to the ticket counter.

Recall as well that you cannot use curbside check-in services for international flights. And however you plan to get to the airport, always give yourself enough time to arrive no less than two hours before departure. (It's much better to spend a little too much time at the airport than to deal with the stress of racing to make your flight when traffic, last-minute returns to the house, small emergencies, and the vagaries of passing TSA security conspire to slow you down.)

2. Do you really have to go to the ticket counter?

If you can use curbside check-in services, you're ahead of the game. If not, you can still somewhat speed through the maze by knowing your airline's methods (which you can find out from its reservationists). Does it have self-service check-in kiosks, for instance? Most airlines of significant size do now, but the downside is that each airline's version is different.

Nevertheless, provided you have an electronic ticket (more than 90 percent of passengers do), your best defense against time loss is that Record Locator Number. Without it at your fingertips, life becomes more difficult. With it, you can punch in the required information at the airline's kiosk and get your boarding pass, change seats (if the flight isn't too full), and electronically let the airline's computer know you're in the airport (so the airline doesn't give away your seat if you get to the gate less than 20 minutes before departure). In many cases, you'll use the kiosks located at the ticket counter even for checking your bags (a harried agent will be racing back and forth behind the counter ripping bag tags off the printers and calling out passenger names).

An even better method, though, is now available through most carriers: Web check-in within 24 hours of departure! In other words, you can visit the airline's Web site, enter the Record Locator Number and your name, and literally check in from home, printing your boarding passes ahead of time. In Southwest's case, checking in a day ahead means you can probably get on the coveted "A" list, meaning you can position yourself in the 'A" chute for first boarding and have a much greater selection of seats and empty overhead bins (there are no reserved seats on Southwest).

With a Web check-in boarding pass and bags to check, use curbside where available and the ticket counter otherwise, but even if you have to visit the counter there will probably be a special line just for you.

If you can travel like a backpacker without checking anything, you're in a better place. Just remember, don't try to bring something aboard larger than the tried-and-true 21-inch roll-on bag, plus one smaller personal item. Additional bags, bags of gifts, assorted cats and dogs, and other hand-held additions will not be accepted! And yes, Virginia, the gate agents can see you trying to hide that third bag (a reasonably small lunch sack though is probably OK).

Final bag-planning item? Get a small hand-held scale from your luggage shop (or use the bathroom scale). The airlines have all adopted the 50-pound maximum-per-bag rule and will happily soak you for more money if you present them with a heavier bag. Plan ahead and don't guess.

Also, make a specific checklist so you can make absolutely sure there are no prohibited items in your carry-ons or checked bags. Go to the Transportaion Security Administration's Web site or call your airline, without hesitation, for more guidance.

3. When and how are you going to be fed?

I know, there was a day when … but that's all past. Eat before you go or plan extra time at the airport for a meal (in most cases not an economical idea), but most important, pack what you want to eat and drink in your carry-ons. This is especially important for kids.

4. Where to meet grandmother at the other end.

To most of us who travel regularly, it's common knowledge that only ticketed passengers are allowed to go past security to the gates. But your relatives or friends may not know this. In most cases, Grandma is going to have to join the crowd waiting for you outside security at your destination airport. Here's the point: Does she really need to meet you inside? The most efficient means these days (since you can't run and hug as you come out of the jetway) is getting picked up at the curb (or, failing that, at the baggage claim).

Make a plan and tell those meeting you that you'll crank up your cell phone and call their cell phone as soon as you're taxiing in or are in the terminal. The best method? Ask them to wait in what's increasingly known as a cell phone lot or some other near-airport waiting spot until you phone them. Then you can get your bags, corral the kids, find the right spot on the curb, and signal them in like a pro, telling them exactly what sign you're standing beside.

The whole point is, prior planning eliminates guesswork and tension and makes the experience calm and maybe even (dare I say) fun!