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Travel Crunch Think Ahead To Smooth Your Way When Traveling Over The Busy Holiday Season

Christmas can be an exasperatingly busy time to travel almost anywhere.

Planes, airports and trains are jammed. Highways are clogged and often lashed by snow or rain.

If you’re traveling during the holidays, you probably can’t avoid the crowds; 38.5 million Americans are expected to travel over the Christmas holidays, the Travel Industry Association of America said last week.

But here are some suggestions on reducing the hassles:

Air travel

Don’t drive to the airport. The roadways will be clogged, and the airlines’ parking garage can fill up. Besides, airport garages are very expensive. Get someone to drop you off, or take a shuttle service, taxi or the city bus.

Alternatively, consider one of the private parking lots near the airport that have van shuttles (they’re listed in the Yellow Pages under “Parking Facilities.”) Phone first to make sure they have space.

With Christmas and New Year’s falling on Wednesdays, travel will be dispersed over more days and not quite as concentrated and crazed as Thanksgiving travel. The busiest days are expected to be on the weekends before and after Christmas and on Dec. 24.

But the entire holiday period, from Dec. 20 through Jan. 5, will be busy, said Alaska Airlines spokesman Lou Cancelmi, who recommended that travelers check in 1-1/2 hours before domestic flights. For international flights generally allow at least two hours.

Give the airline a contact number at home and at your destination so you can be reached in case bad weather causes flight delays or cancellations. If it’s snowy or foggy, don’t wait for the airline to phone: Check on your flight before going to the airport.

For airport check-in be sure to have photo ID, such as a driver’s license. It’s now required by airlines of adult travelers (those 18 and over) because of increased security. If you don’t have such ID, ask the airline about acceptable alternatives.

Don’t wrap gifts that you’re carrying in hand luggage. They might need to be inspected at security checkpoints.

Stick to the airline’s rules on the size of carry-on bags. When planes are full, airlines may insist that passengers check any oversize or extra carry-on luggage.

For checked baggage, put address tags on the outside and inside of each bag (in case the bag gets lost and the exterior tag comes off).

If you’re traveling with skis, snowboards, bikes or golf clubs, check with the airline on packaging and whether they’re included in the free checked-baggage allowance.

Get a seat assignment in advance from your travel agent or airline. Aisle seats can be the best on crowded planes since you’re not wedged in.

“Ticketless” travelers may be able to beat the check-in line by using the computerized kiosks at some airports that issue boarding passes.

Traveling with children? Bring snacks and games in case of delays. A portable tape or CD player (with headphones) or handheld computer game can yield hours of peace.

On the roads

“By both both air and car, we’ve seen a very healthy interest in travel all year long. And it’s going up each holiday season,” said Janet Ray of the American Automobile Association.

Quick getaways are particularly popular at the Christmas season, said Ray. People celebrate with relatives, then head by car to nearby vacation destinations or fly to places like Las Vegas and Reno, Nev.

Wherever you’re driving, you’ll pay more for gasoline. It costs about 17 cents more a gallon in the United States this month than a year ago, said the AAA (the average price of a gallon of unleaded fuel is $1.28).

For those hitting the road, here are some tips:

Highways will be busier than ever, and since it’s party time, there may be drunken drivers. Drive extra-defensively.

Get your car and yourself ready for winter travel.

“It’s amazing how many people forget about antifreeze,” said AAA’s Ray. Have the car checked by a mechanic for antifreeze and more.

Take chains, emergency flares and extra clothing, water and snacks in case of delays. If you’re traveling with young children, consider carrying a sleeping bag or blankets, too, so they can keep warm.

Check on road conditions before heading over the Cascades.

For pass conditions on Interstate 90 (Snoqualmie Pass), Highway 2 (Stevens Pass) and more, phone the Washington Department of Transportation’s recorded information line: (888) 766-4636 (a toll-free call with the new “888” prefix). To check on traffic congestion on highways in the Seattle area (and the passes), phone the DOT’s recorded line, 206-368-4499.

If you’re traveling on Greyhound or other bus lines or aboard Amtrak, allow extra time for boarding. Get there early to get a good seat. Buses and trains will be crowded.

Safe at home

As insurance companies love to remind us, thieves never take a holiday.

To keep your home secure while you’re gone, leave several lights on, preferably on timers. Have the post office hold your mail. Stop newspaper deliveries, or get a reliable neighbor to pick up mail and papers.

Ask friends or neighbors to keep an eye on your home and leave a contact number where you can be reached in an emergency.