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.

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