It’s just you and 54 million of your closest friends. Nearly 90% of you will drive; a little more than 5% will fly, and the rest will take trains, buses and cruise ships, AAA estimates. But the goal is usually the same: trying to get to grandmother’s house for the feast and the fest. Let us pause to give thanks for the folks who shared the wisdom that will help you avoid making mistakes that turn travel into travail. Here are some pitfalls and how to avoid them.
The mistake: Relying on an incorrectly calibrated tire-pressure gauge
Why it matters: Underinflated tires generate lots of heat that can cause them to fail. Overinflated tires reduce traction and may go flat if they hit an object.
The fix: Eyeballing a tire to assess whether it’s at the proper pounds per square inch might have worked before the age of radial tires, but not anymore, said Bob Toth, who’s in industry relations for Goodyear, which you may know as JustTires.
In the good old days of bias-ply tires, you could usually tell if they were under- or overinflated, but radials are more inscrutable. If you’re not comfortable doing this, take your vehicle to a tire center, ask the personnel to check the tire pressure, and then check with your own gauge.
Even those $6 pop-up stick tire gauges can work if they’re calibrated correctly, Toth said. If it’s off, ditch it and invest in another one (and maybe a slightly more 21st century one). And check the tires once a month, please.
The mistake: Guessing how much air your tires need
Why it matters: Because of the reasons in Mistake 1. Plus an overloaded car that’s on incorrectly inflated tires creates an additional hazard.
The fix: You can find out the correct inflation numbers by checking the sticker that’s usually on the inside of the driver’s door. Be aware that some vehicles require different amounts in front and rear tires, Toth said.
The other info you may find on that sticker: how much weight the car can carry. Do a little math. Add up the weight of the passengers and the weight of your luggage. If it’s over the limit, make the hard choices, as long as one of them isn’t leaving behind the kids or the dog.
The mistake: Failing to wash the car
Why it matters: This is not just for show. You need clean headlights, taillights and windows so you can see and be seen.
The fix: If you do it yourself, make sure you wipe down the insides of the windows even if you’re not a smoker (and if you are, this is a must). Heat and certain materials in your car can combine to create what’s known as “offgassing,” in which volatile organic compounds are released and coat the interior of your windows.
The mistake: Not understanding what a basic economy fare means for your travel experience
Why it matters: You may think you’re flying United, American and Delta — and you are. But basic economy means your experience will be different from what it once was, said Tom Spagnola, senior vice president of supplier relations for CheapOair. The restrictions can negate the savings and create problems for parties traveling together.
The fix: Know what you’re getting. With basic economy, or BE, you usually can’t choose your seats in advance, which means families may not sit together. If you need to change your ticket, you probably will lose the entire value of the ticket (not just get hit with a change fee). On United, you’re allowed a personal item (no larger than 9-by-17-by-10 inches) but not a carry-on bag. You can carry on a bag on American and Delta with BE. Confusing? Yes. But see the next items to ensure you are not flummoxed about your flight.
The mistake: Not reading the terms and conditions (or contract for carriage) for your airline ticket and ending up stranded.
Why it matters: If things go wrong, you need to know what you’re entitled to — and what you’re not.
The fix: Pour yourself your drink of choice (maybe something with caffeine) and start reading on the airline’s website. You’ll learn, for instance, that domestic carriers flying in the U.S. do not care if you miss your connection because of weather. They’ll re-book your ticket, but they won’t give you a food voucher or pay for your hotel if it’s weather-related. (Amazingly, many issues are “weather”-related. Uh-huh.)
Part 2 of this fix: Make sure you have a credit card or extra cash with you just in case.
Part 3: Make sure you have the telephone number and the app of the airline so you can start the re-booking process as soon as you know you’re in trouble. If you booked through a third party — Expedia, CheapOair or any other online travel agency, for instance — you’ll need to talk to that organization, not the airline.
The mistake: Neglecting to check a departure (for the flier) or arrival time (for the picker-upper).
Why it matters: Departure times often change; sometimes you’ll be notified and sometimes you will not. This is a good time to be compulsive about checking.
The fix: Whether you’re the flier or the greeter, many airline apps let you check on arrival or departure times. For the flier, make sure you say “yes” to notifications. I also suggest Flight Tracker or FlightAware apps to see whether there’s a delay. For instance, in looking at a random American Airlines flight one recent evening, I see that it was supposed to leave Miami at 2:25 p.m. but left nearly three hours late.
The extra time can be a gift. Maybe you can use it to seek Christmas fares, if you’re so inclined. They may not be as expensive as you fear, Spagnola said, because the holiday is on a Tuesday and you have some departure and arrival flexibility.
And, he said, the smartest shoppers look at secondary airports to keep their costs down even more. For instance, he sometimes flies into Akron, just 40 miles from Cleveland where his family lives.
We’re lucky in the Southland because the plethora of carriers and the number of airports increases the likelihood of finding something that will fit your budget. Found money may be the best kind — no mistake about it.