Horrendous airport delays make headlines every holiday travel season. Sadly, not even the most carefully planned travel itinerary can help you survive flight delays, cancellations and other snow-induced shenanigans.
After undergoing my own 36-hour airport nightmare last summer, I understand the sheer frustration of being bumped time...after time...after time. I know what it's like to curl up on a concrete floor or contort into a deceptively uncomfortable chair. Pulling from my experience as an airport refugee, I've put together this brief prep list and extensive tick-tock guide of what to do, where to go, and how to remain sane during a 36-hour vacation at the concourse. It's going to be a wild -- if stationary -- ride.
Weather is obviously the biggest factor leading to terminal limbo, but a combination of unpredictability, bad timing and high commuter volume really turns a rosy-cheeked getaway into an extended bout of humbugging. According to stats from the Federal Bureau of Transportation, last December saw the highest percentage of delayed flights and twice as many cancellations as the 2009 average. Both trends extend back more than 20 years.
Never before has the art of carry-on packing been so vital. Since we're banking on the unexpected, be prepared with everything you'd bring on a weekend road trip. Grab travel-sized toothpaste, deodorant, soap and shampoo. (Trust me on these: Nothing makes you feel more human than a quick hair and face wash.) Remember the 3-1-1 rule is still in place nationwide. Keep gels and liquids under three ounces and pack everything in a quart-sized bag, limited to one per person.
While many believe all food is banned at the gates, the Transportation Security Administration allows for "reasonable" amounts of food outside the 3-1-1 rule, including baby formula for mothers. Granola bars, nuts and other substantial finger-grub will come in handy 24 hours from now. So will Advil.
Aside from the aforementioned necessities, grab a durable water bottle, at least $100 cash, an extra pair of underwear, socks and a hoodie. (The hoodie can be used as a makeshift pillow, blanket or tourniquet.) Be sure to check size restrictions on your carrier, but most allow up to 15 pounds and one personal item. If all else fails, layer your clothes and remove extras in the terminal. However, don't try and load yourself with gifts. TSA compiled a list of restricted items for the holidays, including snow globes, perfume, cologne and wrapped presents. Mail or check these instead. Suspicious fruitcakes, while allowed, are subject to extra screening.
Although many suggest also mailing your luggage beforehand to avoid checked-bag fees, be careful during the holidays. Keep in mind the same weather keeping you grounded could very well delay your bags, whether they travel by plane or truck.
Oh, and get a laptop or netbook. Now. Find a store with early-season sales and indulge yourself. Decent machines can be found for around $250 online or in person.
Take it from the Ghost of Layovers Past: Fly direct. Connecting flights are cheaper, yes, but weigh the headache against the cash saved. Even the smallest delay can eat at your savings between airport food and possible rebookings, especially during the already-inflated holidays. Be extra wary of travel through Chicago, Washington, D.C., and most Northeastern airports. Even Dulles, which boasts an impeccable on-time record 10 months of the year, sees three times the number of cancelled flights between Thanksgiving and New Years.
Traveling with kids means an extraordinary amount of preparation, planning and worrying. Parents know this already, but something will inevitably slip your mind while arranging an entire vacation. Read through these helpful tips from MSNBC on how to get your children from the car, through security, to the terminal and onto the plane.
Yet no matter how obnoxious your kids are, please, please, don't pull a Home Alone and forget "Kevin." Macaulay Culkin was never the same after his run-ins with Harry and Marv.
Realize your flight has been cancelled. Take a few minutes to freak out in a very un-jolly kind of way.
Hour 1, Minute 10
Try to find an alternate route. If you're in a snowbound airport, no one is going anywhere. If planes are still flying, however, be the first to know about one headed to your destination. Skip mobs at the airline counter and either find a ticketing kiosk or download the FlightTrack application for iPhone and Android smartphones. You can search for new flights by final destination, airline and departure time. The app costs $4.99 but is endorsed by Forbes and The New York Times. It pays to pay for good friends.
Scope a spot and post up. Stay in the general vicinity of your airline's main terminals and search for a roomy place near outlets, restrooms and walkways. All three will prove useful later. Load the handy app Point Inside Airports and Malls and get a leg up on other potential squatters. The free app uses GPS to show your exact location and all nearby shops, restaurants and amenities.
Call your family and friends. Chances are everyone knows about the weather. They probably called while you were checking on alternate flights (multiple times, if their preferred name is Mom). However, house sitters, employers and potential rides need to know how the delays affect them.
Check on help for hellish situations. Travel insurance, often bought beforehand, is tailor-made for these situations. It can be expensive, but in emergencies it's a lifesaver and will help with connecting flights, lost car rentals and other mishaps caused by airport nightmares. Also, take full advantage of credit cards with emergency assistance. American Express Platinum members: I'm looking at you.
Make nice with the nearest gate agent. Seriously, they should be your new BFF. Chat about sports, eats, even the 400-pound snowy gorilla outside. If your flight is simply delayed, ask where the incoming flight is at rather than when it should arrive. They may honestly not know when the plane will land, but they always know where it physically is.
Hop on the airport Wi-Fi. More and more airports offer free Internet service. Over the coming hours, it'll keep you connected, informed and potentially upbeat. Travel Post created a list of over 200 airports with Wi-Fi, detailing which are free, which aren't and where to find hotspots. When wired in, hop on Netflix. Don't have Netflix? First-time users get a free 2-week trial, including instant streaming. Once set up, take down the first season of "Friends." Seeing Chandler locked in an ATM will make you feel better while seeming vaguely familiar.
Start a blog. Everyone uses the Internet to sound off on everything. Why not join the conversation? On another level, this is a unique way to keep family updated on the "situation" at the airport. Rather than relying on newscasts and the occasional phone call, a regularly updated blog is like having a personal correspondent deep in the (snow) trenches. This digital record of the events could eventually become a family heirloom, just like diaries of old. And there's always Twitter for the lazy or ADD-addled.
Grab a bite. At this point you and any companions are starving. There's no getting away from price-gouging fast-food joints at an airport, but you can unearth healthy and affordable options. Browse this handy caloric breakdown of common food court fare, including Starbucks, McDonald's and Chili's.
Hour 9, Minute 2
Speaking of Starbucks, avoid your usual venti latte with a double espresso shot. At some point you'll want to sleep, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Sugary coffee will only leave you wired, awake and annoyed for no reason.
Look into lodging near the airport. As soon as you get final word all planes are grounded, start looking for available hotels. If you find a room, book online. It's often cheaper than walk-up rates. Depending on the airline and number of delays, you can typically get a voucher for a discounted room. If the airline doesn't offer, then ask; but don't expect much when snowbound. You may just have to stick this one out.
Treat yourself like a VIP. Did you think airport lounges and clubs were only for first-class ticket holders? Many are open to general fliers for a fee, usually around $30 if bought online (though the price can jump by almost $25 at the door). Inside, you'll find free snack foods, drinks, Wi-Fi access and a sense of importance. Some even include showers, so take advantage when available.
Keep yourself hydrated the cheap way. Hopefully you packed a Nalgene or similar bottle to fill at the nearby water fountain. It beats exorbitant prices on bottled water and staying hydrated will cut down on headaches.
Charge your electronics. When you start to get droopy, plug in your phone, laptop and whatever else to charge while you're asleep. I've heard of seasoned veterans packing power strips to make up for the scarcity of convenient outlets, carry-on space permitting. Pull one out and you may become the terminal's personal St. Nic.
Hour 14, Minute 10
Catch some rest. Between paper-thin carpet, fluorescent lights and absolutely no privacy, sleep will undoubtedly be difficult, but remember: Many others share your plight and they're sleeping just fine. Use a backpack or fluff your hoodie for a pillow, then throw on your headphones. If you're with a group, agree to have at least one person stay awake. This may be the most wonderful time of the year, but theft doesn't care about Christmas cheer.
Stretch. After emerging from whatever awful position you slept in, full-body stretches will loosen taut limbs. Try a quick 5-minute set to hit your understandably sore legs, back and neck. If nothing else, the routine will give your fellow stranded travelers something to chuckle over.
Hour 18, Minute 5
Congratulate yourself. At hour 18 you're halfway through this airport delay dilemma. Good news: You're warm, safe and relatively clean. Bad news: You're none of those things at your intended destination, and there are still another 18 hours left to go on this 36-hour plan.
Hour 18, Minute 6
Treat yourself to another small freak out.
Pull a Viktor Navorski. In 2004's The Terminal, Tom Hanks' character literally lived in a public restroom for months. Let life imitate art (or at least film -- which was actually based on a true story, but untangling that is too messy) and go freshen up. Brush your teeth, wash your face and, if you're willing, have a quick shampoo as well. Ladies may have trouble, but holy follicles Batman, the payoff almost erases six hours from the clock.
Dig into the snacks you brought. You did bring snacks, right? The low-sugar, energy-packed kind, rather than the crap found at the airport bookstore? No? It's all good. Not like a $3 Snickers ever hurt anyone.
Embark on a post-modern-style journey. Unless you're at a single airstrip in the boonies, chances are the airport you now call home borrows some art or architecture from the past, all designed to look authentic. Marvel at modern incarnations of the Native and Central American aesthetic at Denver International, or scope the reuse of vaguely '50s space-race lines in Philadelphia. While wandering, consider the implications of a world in which nothing is original, then shake your head sadly at teenagers wearing skinny jeans, neon hi-tops and Ray-Bans.
People watch. You'd be surprised how many odd folks, sights and encounters can be found at the average airport on a normal day. Mix the overload from nearly 100 delays with a previously festive atmosphere and you've got a budding MTV series.
Resist the urge to indulge in an $11 rum-spiked eggnog from the airport bar. If you already did imbibe, keep it to one. 'Tis the season as they say, but drinking and airports never mix, as members of the electro hip-hop group LMFAO found out.
Read a paper book or magazine. Enough of this tech-overload for now; iPad and Kindle barely excluded. Pull out a dog-eared favorite or splurge on a new one from the extortionist bookstore (don't say you weren't warned). If at a loss, check out "A Week at the Airport" by Alain de Botton for insights into terminal culture, all lovingly recorded during the author's voluntary -- yes, voluntary -- week in London's Heathrow Airport.
Treat yourself to a special dinner. While fast food may have hit the spot over 15 hours ago, now is time to grab something a bit more substantial and celebratory. Visit the website Airport Dining, a sort of Yelp created specifically for the frequent-flier set. The site is still getting on it's feet, but you'll find listings for over 425 restaurants spread across the world, including reviews, location and available fare.
Explore websites and apps for Pandora or Last.fm. Right about now, listening to the same playlist on your iPod is getting stale. If you haven't previously, tinker around with an online jukebox. Both apps take a band or genre you currently enjoy -- say, Justin Bieber -- and build a personalized station with artists similar to the Biebs. It's a great way to discover new sounds or gawd-awful imitations. Either way, free entertainment in hour 27 is like being nuzzled by the Cottonelle puppy.
Log onto Netflix again and watch The Shining. Your snowbound situation may be bad, but at least it isn't crazy-Jack-wielding-an-ax bad.
Get some much-needed exercise. It's officially been four full work cycles since you arrived at the airport feeling spry as a teenager under mistletoe. Reinvigorate that youthful energy with some quick exercise. You could go for the mundane, like walking around, or the potentially law-breaking, like playing tag the wrong way down a moving sidewalk. Instead, visit an airport gym. These exercise havens are a growing trend across the nation, with independent centers popping up at LAX, Chicago O'Hare and Detroit Metropolitan. Visit AirportGyms.com for a full list of gyms, prices and ammenities in the U.S. and Canada.
Check again on alternate routes. Remember decades ago when you made friends with the gate agent and downloaded FlightTrack? Of course you do, because that same agent has finished one shift, gone home and just recently returned, all while you religiously checked for new flights in vain. Now's the time to visit once more with that agent and check on any available flights. Remind them of your situation, where you're trying to go, and how many people are in your party. Unless you have small children, splitting up across two or more flights may be your only option. Take it if offered.
Hour 33, Minute 15
Do a celebration jig a la Michael Flatley. Congratulations, Lord of the Dance, you finally finagled your way past this little slice of holiday Hades. Just don't strain a muscle. You still have to endure a 5-hour flight.
Double check your nest for all belongings. It seems simple, but in your delusional state you could easily forget a jacket, cell phone or small child when it's time to board.
Hour 34, Minute 30
Indulge in the spiked eggnog. You deserve it.
Hit the bathroom a final time. Enough said.
Prepare to board. Once it's finally "go time," be sure to account for everything. Call those at your final destination once more and inform them of all new plans, arrival info and special instructions. Once inside that glorious aluminum tube, sit back, relax and enjoy yourself before that pesky fear of flying takes over. Happy holidays!