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5 Tips for Making Holiday Travel Less of a Nightmare

If you're not from California, chances are you're one of the projected 8.1 million travelers who will be heading home by plane this holiday season. Which means--sorry to break it to you--you'll likely be spending more time than necessary sitting in the airport or on the tarmac, dealing with weather delays, air traffic, mechanical issues or overbookings. But your experience doesn't have to be miserable. Here are a few tips that will hopefully make your holiday travel a little less painful.

Check In Online. If you're traveling with just a carry-on, or else your airline has a baggage drop desk, you'll bypass long lines by checking in and printing your boarding pass from home. Most airlines allow you to check in up to 24 hours in advance and choose your seat, too.

Pack Light. I've already received a couple of e-mails from travelers who have had their luggage--chock full of Christmas gifts--lost by the airlines, with no insight as to when they will arrive. While packing light can be difficult to do over the holidays, if you can get away with one carry-on (regulations allow for a decent-sized bag 45 to 55 inches in total), you'll make checking in a breeze. Just remember: All carry-on liquid items must be three ounces or less and sealed in a ziplock bag one quart in size or less.

Download Podcasts. If you're tired of the same ole playlist you've had on your iPod for the past three years, why not try something new? iTunes offers downloads of programs like radio shows (NPR's This American Life is always a popular option), concerts and video podcasts for no charge. Additionally, you can purchase audiobooks for a nominal fee. If you're the type who likes to sleep on a plane, try out the white, pink and red noise, free for download from SimplyNoise.com, which will allow you to sleep soundly while blocking out the background chatter. It may not aid in you getting there quicker, but at least you'll be less irritable en route.

Prepare. When I flew back to Tennessee from San Francisco last week, I was stuck behind several travelers who were outraged when they checked in and found out they were going to be charged for their bag. Their arguments with the ticket counter employees only made for more delays and more angry travelers who had to wait as a result. If you've followed the decline of the air travel industry this past year, you'll know that most airlines charge for a second checked bag and many are now requiring you pay for a first, as well. So know your airline's regulations before you go. On the same note, many airlines offer the opportunity to sign up for flight alerts ahead of time, so you're sent a text or courtesy call if your flight is delayed or canceled, which can potentially save you hours of lost time spent at the airport.

Snag a Coveted Seat. Many airlines are no longer leaving their exit rows--which offer as much as two feet of additional leg room--available to book until the day of the flight. If you chose not to purchase a premium, business class or first class seat prior to traveling, check in early and ask if there are any remaining exit row seats (free of charge). Your family will thank you (and me) when you arrive home more well-rested and relaxed than had you been cramped in a standard economy seat.