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posted: 12/2/2012 6:00 AM

Planning can help ease those holiday travel headaches

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Remember the days when Christmas meant packing the car with presents and driving to your grandparents' home? For me, that drive meant sitting on the right side of an imaginary line in the back seat. My brother sat on the left side. Cross that line and I would see stars that had nothing to do with Christmas. Three hours later the smells of cinnamon and freshly baked bread and warm hugs and kisses would greet us at our grandparents' house.

All that has changed. Today, grandmother is more likely to live in a condo in Arizona. And the drive to her house takes three days instead of three hours.

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So instead of packing up the family car and driving for days, more families opt to stay home and let the grandparents fly to them. It's a practical solution, but one that can be fraught with problems for the grandparents without some careful planning.

For Martha Jones, a grandmother from Wisconsin, when she thinks of Christmas, it's not visions of sugarplums that dance in her head. It's losing her jewelry while trying to get through security that sticks in her craw.

"I tried to keep an eye on my carry-on," said Martha, "but when I got singled out for a thorough search, I got confused. I didn't know my jewelry was missing until I was seated on my flight."

Airport travel today is difficult for even the frequent flier, but frustrations increase at holiday times. And for senior passengers not used to dealing with long lines and heavy crowds, the challenge can be overwhelming.

Here are some ways to make the journey easier:

• Plan ahead. If walking through an airport is more than you want to handle, order a wheelchair in advance. Wheelchairs also get priority at security checkpoints, so you can avoid the long lines. When you arrive at your gate, confirm a wheelchair will meet you at your destination gate. And on the flight remind the flight attendant to confirm the chair will be waiting for you.

• Make your luggage stand out. Tag your luggage with easy-to-read identification. Add bright ribbons or stickers to make your bag stand out at baggage claim.

• Pack a carry-on. Checked luggage can get lost. Put all your medications in your carry-on. Be sure to include doctor and pharmacy numbers in case of an emergency.

• Leave valuables at home. If you must bring jewelry, limit it to less expensive pieces and pack them in your carry-on. Never pack computers, cameras or other valuables in your checked luggage.

• Take public transportation and arrive early. Leave the driving to a limo service. Parking can add time and stress to your trip and airport lots often fill up and are expensive. Arrive at the airport at least two hours before your flight. It's better to be seated and bored for an hour before your flight than breathless and aggravated as you watch your plane taxi away from you at the gate area.

• Avoid wrapping gifts. Security agents love to open brightly colored presents. If you must wrap gifts, put them in your checked luggage.

Air travel over the holidays isn't anybody's Christmas dream, but it doesn't have to be a nightmare. Flying to spend the holidays with your family should be filled with peace and joy not frustration and anger. And you can do this if you plan ahead.

Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at gailtodd@aol.com.

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