7 Tips to Make Holiday Travel Less Stressful

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Traveling is an integral part of the holiday season for many people. While traveling any time can be a major source of stress, holiday travel (loaded with gifts and baggage, with the kids along, through possible wintry weather, and on common crowded pre and post-holiday travel dates) is even more nerve racking. TSA screening guidelines have increased the stress levels of traveling by air. Although you can't eliminate the stress associated with holiday travel, these tips can help you lessen the impact of holiday travel stress.

  1. Accept the situation and plan ahead. Crowded airplanes and highways, wintry weather, harried personnel, and unexpected delays are all aspects of your trip which are beyond your control. Assume you're likely to encounter most or all of these obstacles and that you aren't going to be able to change them. Instead, focus on your reactions to these stressors. Anticipation of stressful occurrences, and forming a mental plan for remaining calm and dealing with them, will greatly reduce your perception of stress.
  2. Give yourself enough time. Whatever your mode of travel, allow yourself more time than you can possibly imagine that you will need when traveling for the holidays. This is particularly important for heavy-travel days (such as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in the U.S.). On these days, just about everything including check-in lines, finding a cab, and airport parking can be expected to take longer than usual. Business travelers accustomed to a travel routine may also find that traveling with the family along doesn't run quite as smoothly or efficiently as when traveling solo. Knowing that you have adequate time to deal with any unexpected occurrences can help prevent anxiety and stress. Should you arrive at the airport early, remember that sitting in an airport lounge working or reading is far more relaxing than sitting in a traffic-stalled taxi 20 minutes before your flight departs.
  3. Make a few contingency plans. Consider the truly unexpected circumstances. For examples, you drive to the airport and the parking lots are full, or a snowstorm is approaching your destination city. Always check weather, traffic, and parking reports before departing, and have some backup ideas (leave earlier, leave later, use another mode of transportation) ready to prevent panic.
  4. Check your bags. If you're traveling by air and dedicated to your carry-on, consider the advantages of checking your luggage. The risk of delayed or lost baggage is actually very small, and the freedom of movement gained during your journey is often worth the risk, particularly if you'll have layovers in crowded airports. Think about possible delays and decide if you're up to hauling those carry-ons everywhere you go. Planes (and overhead compartments) are going to be at their fullest capacity. If you take regular medication, make sure you take this with you on the plane just in case your luggage is delayed.
  5. Keep the kids happy (and well fed). Travelers with young children will want to plan for amusements and distractions for long waits, drives, or flights. Having a few "surprise" novelty items to hand out at intervals is a good technique to combat boredom and fussiness. Since children (and adults!) tend to be more anxious and stressed when hungry, bring along some snacks (preferably of the non-sticky, non-melting variety) and a bottle of water. Don't count on the airplane meal appealing to your child's tastes or even being served when you'd like it. Likewise, plan for long highway stretches and traffic jams, which mean you won't have instant access to food vendors. Another advantage is that you yourself won't fall into the trap of becoming cranky due to hunger pangs.
  6. Think about changes of clothing. If your children belong to the baby/toddler set, consider having an accessible change of clothing for you as well as for the little ones, since your little frequent flyer may decide to spill his food on you rather than on himself. You can also dress in layers which can be removed if necessary. If you must arrive looking your best, think about traveling in comfortable clothes and changing on the plane or at a rest area before you reach your destination.
  7. Plan ahead for next year's holidays. This is the last thing you're likely to want to do in the midst of holiday stress. But if you find that your holiday travel is unbearable, use this year's get-together to discuss alternate plans for next year. If family "tradition" dictates that you meet at a far-off or inconvenient location for you, suggest a change to a more accessible place for next year (or offer to act as host yourself). You may even feel you need to skip travel and family gatherings altogether next year. A tactful announcement that you're planning to do something different next year is much easier to make now than three weeks before next year's festivities. If you remain committed to traveling at holiday time, make a note in your calendar to arrange plane reservations for your trip months in advance to avoid inconvenient flight times and connections.

Medically reveiwed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care

REFERENCE: Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

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