How to survive the holiday travel season


Frantic trips to the airport, layovers due to blizzards, crowds, plus an overwhelming sense of family obligation.  Yup, it must be the holiday season.

I actually like the holidays, despite never having found a particular holiday that I identified with strongly.  Any season where colored Christmas lights and candles are ubiquitous can’t be all that bad.  Putting aside the obvious and well-discussed over-commercialization of this time of year, it can be a nice distraction from the dark and dreary nature of the winter months. (What must it be like in Australia?)  Part of me wonders why we couldn’t put this off until February, when the winter really starts to get to us.  But more on that in a bit.

When I moved to Portland, with all of my family back east, this presented me with a conundrum that I had never needed to deal with:  holiday travel.  I heard stories about people being stuck in airports for days, sleeping on cots, all while paying tons of money for their ticket, all just to get to see people for as little as a single day.  And now I was faced with a similar situation, and I confess that I wanted no part in it.

Yet, the idea of going and seeing people in the winter months did have some appeal.  But that was about the only part that had some appeal.  So with that in mind, I realized that there are ways to survive and thrive in the holiday season without accepting that it needs to be stressful.

Foremost, I realized that I could travel near the holidays, not at the holidays.  At least in the US, we travel at the end of November, and then again at the end of December.  In between, few people travel, and so the planes, while not empty, certainly aren’t full, and a blizzard is less likely to cause travel catastrophe.

The airlines know how most people travel, which is why prices for travel during the peak times can be so extortionate.  At the same time, there is a two week period in between these times where prices collapse to almost nothing.  And when I say cheap, I mean it.  Looking at Kayak or ITA (sites I try not to look at too much, as they can become addicting) as recently as a few weeks ago showed cross-country flights around $250 at the beginning of December, while most flights hovered in the $600 range at the end of December.  Ouch.

I’m not suggesting that you extend your travel time by a few weeks (though I guess you could do that).  Instead, I’m offering the suggestion that you move the holiday season.  Really.  Talk with your family, and declare (say) Christmas to be on Saturday, December 15th.  (Those who celebrate Hanukkah already sort of do this by default, considering the variability in its start date in our calendar.)  You can still do the whole tree and presents thing, and whatever you have for dinner will still taste just as good.

Does this sound crazy?  If so, why?  Ask yourself what is most important.  If you’re like many, the most important part of your holiday travel is to see people.  The specific day doesn’t really matter all that much.  And besides, it might feel good to take a little control of the crazy season, one so often characterized by stress and hurry.

Some of you may have obligations that require you to be somewhere at some time, and so you may not be able to move the holidays around.  And some religious folks will argue that this is a debasement of the holidays themselves.  But even so, there are other creative ways that you can customize the holiday/travel experience to work better for you.  You could:

  • Skip cooking dinner together and go out to eat at some place nice and simple
  • Support the Buy Nothing Day movement by not buying stuff, and instead giving your family cards from Kiva (or some other similar such charity)
  • Declare a moratorium on travel outright and have dinner together on Skype

You get the idea.  The most important part to take away from this is to remember that whenever you find yourself doing something “just because”, that’s a warning sign.  Ask yourself what is important and hold on to that; the rest is flexible.  Just because someone said that a specific day out of the year is important doesn’t mean that it has to be so.

So, writing from the house of my childhood, happy holidays to everyone, whenever and however you decide to actually celebrate them.

But enough about me.  How are you making the holidays more awesome?

Note: Want a free financial counseling session?  Sign up for the Ex-Velleitiers list on the right side of the page and send me a note introducing yourself.  Offer (but not the mailing list) magically expires on December 17th, so don’t wait.

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