‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ Provides the Ultimate Checklist for Holiday Travel


The holidays are upon us, which means that holiday travel planning is well underway. Whether your destination this season is a quick car ride away or on the other side of multiple flights, there’s plenty of prep work needed for the journey.

To spare you a little stress, we collected five travel tips from the 1987 masterclass in how not to navigate holiday travel, Planes, Trains & Automobiles. And to update these lessons for today’s air, rail, and road challenges, we spoke with former LA Times travel editor Catharine Hamm

Arrive at the Airport at Least Two and a Half Hours Early for Holiday Travel 

“You’ll never make the 6:00.”

The movie opens with Steve Martin’s Neal Page sitting in a business meeting in New York City, glancing nervously at his watch because his flight home to Chicago is scheduled to depart in 75 minutes. Neal’s colleague admonishes him that he’ll never make the 6pm flight in rush hour traffic. 

Neal leaves the meeting but ends up losing his taxi to his foil and unexpected holiday travel partner Del Griffith, played by John Candy.

The lesson here is even if you feel somewhat familiar with your route and traffic patterns, prepare as if none of that matters. 

Hamm adds that the classic advice to arrive 90 minutes early for domestic flights, and two hours ahead for international, doesn’t cut it anymore.

“My home airport, LAX, is always a treasure chest of surprises,” says Hamm. “For a domestic flight, I arrive at least two hours early and for international, at least four. I add 30 minutes to those times during the holidays.”

Of course, there are helpful travel features like TSA PreCheck. But Hamm warns that even this shouldn’t negate your plan to arrive early.

“I recommend having TSA’s PreCheck or Global Entry, which includes PreCheck,” says Hamm. “The downside, of course, is that small airports may not have PreCheck, and suddenly you have to go through the regular rules—laptop out, shoes off. If you don’t know if the airport has PreCheck, pack your carry-on as though it will not be available.” 

Related: What Is Skiplagging—and Should You Risk It?

Call the Hotel the Day of Your Reservation To Ensure You’ll Have a Room

“Who told you to book a room? I did–out of the goodness of my dumb old heart.”

If you’re traveling for the holidays with intention of checking into lodging for a night, Hamm says that we shouldn’t assume reservations will go off without a hitch.

“Reserving a room doesn’t mean you’ll always get a room, especially in busy places (Vegas comes to mind) on a holiday or other crowded time of year,” she notes.

After their flight to Chicago is cancelled due to weather, Neal and Del check into a Wichita, KS motel with every intention of having separate rooms. That of course isn’t the case, as the two strangers have to share the last room available, including a single bed. Frustrations boil over, leading to this classic scene.

Often, online booking procedures seem pretty straightforward and provide peace-of-mind when the confirmation comes to your inbox instantly. However, depending on where you’re staying, the hospitality standards may vary.

“Innkeeper laws vary from state to state, so it’s a good idea to take a glance at them in the state where you’re going,” says Hamm. “Most of the time, however, if you show up and there’s no room, the hotel is required to ‘walk’ you to another place. And if you’re going to be really late arriving at the hotel, it doesn’t hurt to call and say, ‘Hey, my flight is late, don’t give my room away, please.”

Rental services like Airbnb may be designed to prevent issues like this, however there are plenty of horror stories there, too. Bottom line: Make a hotel reservation at the same time you book travel, call ahead on the reservation day to ensure your room is still available, and have a backup hotel option in case your first one falls through.

Related: The Best Micro Hotels Around the World

Keep Your Valuables Close

“We’ve been robbed!”

“If you checked your bag, take a carry-on with what you’d need for an overnight stay. Do not, not, not ever pack valuables in your luggage,” Hamm says.

While Neal and Del have their luggage with them on their journey, they aren’t as careful with their valuables–as they find out their cash was stolen overnight.

As Hamm attests, there’s no predicting what can happen to checked luggage. “Coming home to L.A. one year for Christmas, I stupidly packed diamond earrings, a college graduation gift from my parents, in my luggage. My bag was—I’m not making this up—run over by a forklift on the tarmac and when I did finally get it back three days later, I was afraid to tell [my] parents what a dumb thing I had done. 

“Imagine my relief when I found the earrings still tucked in a pocket of the suitcase. My mother helped me unpack but never knew about the earrings. Instead, she was scandalized by finding men’s underwear in my bag, along with two college textbooks on subjects I never took, plus assorted socks. I think when the bags burst, the airport workers just scooped stuff up and put it in whatever bag was close by.”

If you don’t want to be involuntarily generous this holiday season, keep your valuables on your person. For added security, invest in a reliable tracker. Such options include the Samsung Galaxy SmartTag2, Tile Pro, or Apple AirTag.

“Nowadays, like many people, I travel with an AirTag in my luggage,” Hamm notes. “[I] haven’t needed it so far, but nice to know it’s there.”

Related: 10 Tips For Preventing Luggage Loss

Don’t Rent a Car at the Airport

“May I see your rental agreement?”

After your long holiday flight(s), you finally arrive at your destination city and need to rent a car. Your problem: You decide to rent a car at the airport. Going this route will likely cause you to run in to what are called “premium location” fees–an additional surcharge that rental companies levy to cover operating costs in airports. And it’s likely the inventory at the airport will be low during the holidays.

“It’s not a good idea to show up and rent a car,” Hamm confirms. “The walk-up rate usually will be much more expensive and availability may be limited. Also be prepared, at the holidays, or any time, to get a car you never wanted in the first place.”

As Neal finds out, in another iconic scene from the film, the frustration of the rental process going awry in person can feel apocalyptic.

You’ll be better off getting a shuttle or Uber to a rental car place that’s nearby. Just be sure to check the inventory and reserve online before you arrive. The worst case scenario is the car you want or need is not available and instead you get something that isn’t suitable for your trip…or your person. 

“On one trip, I wound up with a giant SUV which was [the only rental vehicle] left,” shares Hamm. “I am short, the SUV was huge and I had to pull myself into the cab using the steering wheel. From the driver’s seat, exiting looked to me like jumping off a skyscraper.”

Related: Best Rental Cars for a Trip to the Mountains, Coast, or City

Book Travel Three Weeks Before the Holiday and Never Take The Last Flight

“I’m a little late…But I’m a little wiser, too.”

One misconception that travel experts warn against is the belief that waiting to book tickets until the day of the holiday, or booking the final flight or train of the day, will make the lanes clearer.

“Please stop taking the last flight of the day,” Hamm stresses. “No good will come of it.”

What will come is the likelihood that your flight or train will be delayed or even cancelled while you’re at the station waiting to board. Not to mention the additional fees involved for booking travel on the holiday itself.

The most recommended time window to book travel is three weeks in advance of the holidays–around the end of October. Or, if you’re only traveling during Christmas, Thanksgiving should be the deadline for booking.

By the tail end of Neil and Del’s journey home, they’ve nearly come to blows (and blown up) but they’ve also learned a great deal about what does and doesn’t work when traveling. And, of course, they’ve learned to see one another with fresh perspective.

Remember, though it can be stressful and annoying to travel during the holidays, the most important thing is to keep in mind the why behind it–to foster valuable connections.

Hamm recalls her many years on the road to visit loved ones and appreciates the lessons that sparked personal decisions. “[I moved] to California where most of my family was,” she acknowledges as a key reason for her reduced holiday travel. “[Doing so] put an end to those tearful goodbyes when it was time to go back to wherever I was pretending to call home.”

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