Flying the Busiest Days of the Year

The Jagers became Florida snowbirds for Thanksgiving 2017. With Derek consulting in Naples and his parents living in Gainesville, we set our travel plans for a new destination on the holiday weekend. Overall, Ashley’s round trip was a positive experience thanks to Derek’s tried and true travel tips. When booking flights, we took advantage of Ashley’s holiday schedule having no school on Wednesday the 22nd, two days before Thanksgiving, to book a red-eye flight with Southwest Airlines.  Ashley was flying the skies before the birds at 5:00 am. This is her journey of traveling the most wonderful time of the year:

Tip #1: Arrive Early

To avoid the airport commute in holiday traffic, I booked a bus ticket from the airport in South Bend, IN to the Chicago Midway Airport after work on Tuesday, November 21st. Seating is available on a first-come basis, so I arrived early to guarantee a spot on the next afternoon bus at 4:30pm. There was a small crowd joining me which was more than the usual attendance for Derek’s weekly trips.

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(Above: Coach USA, Chicago Midway Airport)

It was a smooth ride until our driver hit bumper to bumper traffic near Portage, IN. As I was nibbled my peanut butter sandwich, I started to feel a little nauseous when the bus began lurching forward due to frequent braking. I focused on controlled breathing to calm my stomach until the transfer station for the bus to Midway. Buses were running behind schedule due to the heavy traffic and I was grateful that I would be arriving the night before so that I wouldn’t miss my flight. We eventually made it to Midway were I checked in and printed my boarding pass using the self-checkout kiosk for the next morning. This turned out to be a huge time-saver the next day.

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(Above: Southwest Self-Kiosk Stations, Chicago Midway Airport)

By this time, it was close to 9:00 pm and I called the hotel shuttle for a ride. We had booked a free-travel stay at a Hampton Inn using Derek’s hotel points. I was quickly shuttled to the hotel where I settled into bed with my alarms set for 2:00 am. I wanted to get to the airport by 3:00 am for the long TSA lines with the holiday rush.  Derek also sweetly offered to be my back-up alarm in the morning to make sure I wouldn’t sleep through my flight. The hotel shuttle left at 2:30 am and I got to the airport fifteen minutes later with time to spare. Surprisingly, the self-check kiosks were not yet turned on for the morning and there was a line all the way to the escalators for passengers waiting for Southwest Airlines to open for check-in. Since I had checked-in the night before, I simply bypassed this line and started a new line for security.

TSA was ready for a busy day. The TSA agents set up their lines before the scheduled opening time at 3:30 am and gave each person a time card to track how long it took for each passenger to go through security. The process was efficient and ran very smoothly. I arrived at my gate with an hour to spare and pulled my laptop from my carry-on suitcase. To my unfortunate surprise, my screen was damaged after going through the TSA scanner and was completely inoperable. I am currently working to get this repaired and file a claim ticket with TSA. Despite my laptop situation, I was content with my good fortune in travel and patiently awaited boarding the plane. In this case, the early bird made her flight.

Tip #2 Avoid checking bags, even if means dragging a box of rocks along with you 

I try to pack lightly whenever possible. I don’t need to transport everyday comforts with me if only going away for less than a week. It felt strange to select shorts and t-shirts for a Thanksgiving trip, but I would only need one rain jacket and a pair of long pants for the journey from Chicago to Gainesville.  I have also experienced flying Spirit Airlines with just a drawstring bag as my “personal item” and no suitcase whatsoever, so the Southwest policy of a personal item, carry on, and two checked bags for free was a luxurious feeling.

Anticipating the overflow of Thanksgiving travel, I opted out of checking bags and carried on a suitcase that exactly fit the approved measurements for Southwest Airlines. This suitcase became a portal to our board game library by packaging down several games into Ziploc bags and rubber bands for family entertainment over the holiday weekend. The added weight these games brought to my bag was incredible and I feared the stewardess might confiscate my luggage when she witnessed my struggle to lift it above my head into the storage bin with slightly raised eyebrows.  Maybe I brought too many game boards with me, but carrying along my luggage was definitely worth avoiding the lines at check-in and baggage claim.

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Tip #3: A happy traveler has a full tank 

I recommend pre-packing snacks to munch on in the overpriced airports and planes. People eat when they’re hungry or bored and I wasn’t willing to shell out $7.00 for a toddler-sized bag of pretzels. TSA allows empty water bottles and dry goods through security. You’d be surprised the range of acceptable foods that go through TSA, believe me, I know because my suitcase of board games required additional searching and my fellow travelers seemed to bring their kitchen pantries with them. TSA: What can I Bring? Food Items I didn’t want to travel on an empty stomach for my three-hour nonstop flight so I pre-packed acceptable foods for the journey.

Southwest Airlines boards tickets in zones but the seat numbers are chosen on a first-come basis. I found the middle seat to be undesirable to most of the public and positioned myself within the first few rows like a first-class passenger. We had 100% occupancy on the nonstop flight to Tampa and I zonked out as soon as my belt was buckled.

Retroactively, I should have also downloaded the Southwest Airlines entertainment app because we flew in a Wifi plane offering free streaming of tv shows with the media player app. They also had Wifi access and movies available for purchase. A full battery and a pre-downloaded app would have allowed me to partake in these options.

Tip #4: Appreciate the Travel Experience 

Maybe I’m just crazy but I enjoyed the legs of travel from Elkhart to South Bend, Chicago, Tampa, and then Gainesville. I was overwhelmingly thankful to be able to go on this Thanksgiving trip and visit my in-laws with my husband. There will always be uncomfortable situations and moments of frustration, but I savored the journey by exercising flexibility and patience.

 

I made conversation with fellow travelers, thanked bus drivers, and wished the TSA agents a Happy Thanksgiving. I pleasantly wandered the Tampa airport people-watching and Newslink browsing on my layover while Derek drove the two hours from work in Naples to the Tampa airport.DSC01434

It was exciting to see him and officially begin the holiday together as I took over for the last two hours north to the parents in Gainesville, Florida. I was prepared for the worst to travel the Thanksgiving weekend, but found that preparation  and careful travel tactics allowed for smooth sailing. I believe that traveling will always be stressful and inconvenient to some extent, but I was able to tap into the right frame of mind to appreciate the privilege I had to be on such a trip with my family. We made it to Gainesville just after dinner and went out for a late night walk in the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Football Stadium. More details to come in our next Florida post from The Swamp

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