Oh, the woes of holiday travel. We all know it can be stress-inducing. As a mindfulness and meditation teacher, I hear about it from my students between the months of November all the way into January. My gentle reminder: You can empower yourself to take steps to make that journey by train, plane or automobile more pleasant, regardless of the time of year. Just as you wouldn’t continue driving over the same potholes in a road if you knew of their location, why allow anticipated frustrations and annoyances—otherwise known as “holiday travel potholes”—get the best of you? Here are a few ways to prevent holiday travel angst from wrapping you up in a stress bow.
Consider off–peak travel
Why travel when everyone else is if you can oh-so-slightly adjust it, and ultimately enjoy a smoother experience? For instance, instead of leaving in the days before Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s, consider the day of the holiday—as roads, airports and train stations are generally much calmer. And if you’re traveling by car, leave either exceptionally early or exceptionally late to avoid that bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic that can agitate and annoy.
Budget WAY more time than you think necessary
However you plan to get from Point A to Point B, give yourself lots of extra time during the holidays. L-O-T-S. Cushion time allows space for the unexpected, which can and likely will happen, and this can ultimately prevent the stress rushing to catch a flight, train or bus. Worse-case scenario: You arrive early and have some extra down time at the airport or train station to read, shop or sit back to observe other frazzled travelers not as savvy as you.
Book separate flights and accommodations
If you sense that traveling or staying with family and friends for extended periods of time over the holidays might not inspire that jolly yuletide cheer, consider booking separate flights and/or finding separate places to stay, whether it be at a hotel or on a relative’s couch (you can still find some pretty good holiday hotel deals at Travelocity). The same goes for saying “yes” to every holiday activity scheduled: It’s okay to politely decline. They will understand your need for personal space (even if you need to attach a white lie to justify the “why”), and your actions might inspire others to set their own boundaries, too.
Create a running list
If you dread forgetting something, start a running list of what you’ll need to travel … now. What do you need to bring to the airport? What will you need in transit? What items do you need to have packed in the carry-on versus your checked luggage? Do any of your identification cards need to be renewed? Will you be traveling with gifts? Visualize the journey to make it near-impossible to forget even the smallest item on that packing list.
Use TSA Pre✓® or Global Entry
Those TSA lines at the airport can be a great time to practice deep breathing or listen to your favorite podcast. But if the lines—especially security lines during the holidays—stress you out, consider applying for TSA Pre✓® ($85 application fee for a 5-year membership for domestic travel) or Global Entry ($100, 5-year-membership for domestic and international travel) to zip through security much quicker. Tip: On occasion, if you’re traveling on the same reservation with someone who has TSA Pre✓®, you can go through the TSA line with him or her. Kids 12 and under can always accompany an adult who’s traveling with TSA Pre✓®.
Rent a car
If you’re staying with family and are car-less, consider springing for a car rental. It will give you freedom to come and go as you please, including exiting stage left during awkward family conversations, if need be.
Create a travel relaxation kit
Anticipate what you’ll need to make the journey comfortable. By creating a unique-to-you “me break” kit, you’ll have tools to remove you from the chaos. It should include whatever helps to inspire relaxation, such as noise-canceling headphones, neck pillow, meditation apps, books, movies, your favorite music, essential oils, melatonin (to help with sleep), an eye mask and chewable health supplements.
Consider what will appease OTHERS
It’s not just about you, especially if you’re traveling with others. Their mood will likely affect your mood, so why not prepare goodies to keep them satisfied and occupied? If you have children in tow, be sure to (over)pack plenty of snacks and diversions to keep them occupied during those times when you’ll be indulging in your “me break” kit.
Ship your gifts
Lighten your load—literally. If you’re traveling long distances by plane, train or bus, it may make sense to have your gifts shipped to your destination, rather than lugging them throughout the journey. Consider any shipment fees an investment in your mental health.
Feeling ill or agitated doesn’t help while traveling, and in the case of illness, you may not be allowed to travel at all. Make necessary medical appointments, get plenty of sleep and stay hydrated in the weeks leading up to your holiday travels. Self-care is not a luxury; it’s a health necessity. Be gentle and kind to yourself so that you are better able to extend the same to those you meet along the journey and at your final destination.
Prepare for those loaded conversations
Whether you’re traveling with people that might open topics you’d rather avoid or you’re bunking in their spare bedroom for the holidays, it’s healthy to acknowledge the likelihood of falling into the conversations you deem awkward, taboo or unwanted. You can’t always control or change the people around you, but you can control your response. Rehearse your response, even if it’s delicately deflecting or changing the subject, so that you’re prepared and not caught off-guard.
It’s easy to slip-slide into the negative. Our brains, according to noted neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, are Teflon for the positive and Velcro for the negative. Rather than ALLOW yourself to dwell on travel scenarios that aren’t going your way, draw empowerment from the good stuff going on in your life, no matter how “small,” and extend that kindness to others. Who knows, it could net you a complimentary upgrade from an agent being unfairly berated by other travelers.
Exhale … deeply
Delays, cancellations, crowds, tantrums and sticky conversations: Some things cannot be predicted or avoided. In these moments, if you cannot step away completely, take a short pause. Place your hand on the chest and take three very deep breaths before you speak, honk the horn or Tweet. While it might seem cliché, there’s science behind why it’s helpful: A deep exhale hacks the vagus nerve, which calms the nervous system. This can help to inspire a wiser response versus an emotional reaction you may later regret.
For more advice on how to navigate and manage holiday stress, the American Psychology Association offers a Holiday Stress Resource Center.
Erica Bray is a mindfulness and meditation teacher based in Chicago. www.ericabray.com
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