As we head to the holidays, many of us will be hitting the skies to visit family. If you plan to do any flying for the holidays, consider these tips to help keep your travel experience smooth sailing.
1. Purchase your gifts online and have them shipped directly
Save gas and the hassles of going to your local mall by simply shopping online. The earlier you shop, the cheaper the shipping fees.
You can find just about everything online these days, but it’s never a guaranteed thing when you purchase things online. Maybe the color just isn’t the same as it appeared on your monitor, or the fabric feels cheaper than it appeared. For this reason, try to use online stores that have very liberal return policies that will let the recipient of your gift return the item with ease:
- Retailers like REI have both an online and physical store presence. If your gift recipient lives near an REI store, they can take the item back in person.
- Mail order catalog outfits like Travelsmith have a no-questions-asked exchange policy that makes exchanges easy. In addition to a complete online store, they also offer their entire inventory in a catalog, in case your recipient would prefer going through a mail order catalog to decide on an exchange item.
- Online stores like Zappos charge no shipping fees for returning an item, nor do they charge to ship the new item that you’re exchanging for. This can be a huge cost savings over other online stores, who can charge upwards of $7.00 for you to print out and use their merchandise return shipping labels.
Make sure you read the fine print before ordering online. Do they charge for returning or exchanging an item? How do they handle refunds? Can the recipient do this or do you have to intervene as the holder of the credit card?
Most importantly, check to see if they have a limit on how many days you have to exchange something. If an item at one place is cheaper by a few bucks but must be returned within 30 days of purchase, consider buying the same item (for a little more) at another site that doesn’t have this restriction.
Once you’ve decided on the purchases, have the items shipped to your recipient’s home directly. Most sites let you add a gift card or gift wrapping; whether you wish to do this is up to you. Gift wrapping usually costs more, and in the few occasions I’ve used the service, I haven’t been particularly impressed. Instead, you might just want to ship the item to the recipient’s home but have it addressed to your name. You can wrap the items when you get there.
Make sure you let your recipient know not to open any of these packages, though!
2. Ship your gifts in advance
Whether you purchase online or find something in a neighborhood store, consider gift wrapping them then shipping them out well in advance of your trip. This way you don’t have to worry about carrying the item on your flight, wrapping items when you get there, losing them when your checked luggage gets lost or stolen, or dented/broken as bags tumble through checked-luggage land.
You can wrap and label your gifts for your recipients, and put them all in shipping boxes. If the items are small enough, you can place everything in a flat rate Priority Mail box from the US Postal Service. You can spend a few extra dollars to get a delivery confirmation service for your package as well, which allows you to track its whereabouts in the system.
Make sure to note on the outside box that it’s OK for your recipients to open, if you’d like to have your gift-wrapped boxes sitting under the tree when you get there.
3. Purchase gifts you can take with you on your carry-on
If you’d rather have the security of keeping the gifts at your side and you wish to travel with them, may I suggest that you put them in your carry-on so that the items won’t get lost? If so, however, all the regular rules about carry-ons apply. The gifts:
- Must be small enough that they can easily fit in your carry-on, while you still pack your regular carry-on items in your bag.
- Cannot be liquids or gels; this means perfumes, bath gels, gift packs of jams and jellies, and the like are no-nos.
- Cannot be on the prohibited list for carry-ons, so no buck knife, no paint ball rifles, steak knife set, and so on.
4. Wait to wrap items until you get there
If you choose to take the gifts with you, make sure they are not gift wrapped beforehand. If there’s any question about them during the security screening process, the TSA agents will open your wrapped packages. Wait until you get to your destination before wrapping them. You can either pick up gift wrapping supplies at a store after you land, use the supplies available at the home you’re visiting (in which case, make sure you confirm that they do), or bring the supplies with you. Gift bags are particularly handy for this (unless you’re my husband; he says gift bags are particularly gauche and that gifts should be wrapped, not bagged), but you can also purchase small folded packets of gift wrapping. If you already have a lot of wrapping paper at home and you don’t want to buy new ones, simply cut out a large swath that will adequately cover all your gifts (to be safe, I’d double the amount). Fold them carefully and slide them into a stiff envelope (such as a FedEx or Priority Mail envelope) to prevent creasing. Don’t forget to tuck in any holiday cards or gift tags. If you have the room, take a single spool of ribbon as well. If your carry-on is really full, you can always clip it onto the shoulder strap of your carry-on. Just make sure to take the end of the ribbon securely. Finally, make sure you take a small roll of cello tape so you have a way to tape your bag or wrapping shut.
5. Consider gift cards that will create memories
These days, it’s so easy just to pick up a gift card for any retailer. Retailers love these gift cards because they make the money up front, and there are enough people who lose them, forget they have them, leave a balance and don’t use them all up, buy things that cost more than the balance on the card (thereby allowing the retailers to make even more money on purchases), or worst of all, not use them up before they expire. In my opinion, these cards should never have an expiration date, but many do. Read the fine print.
That said, there are some gift cards and gift certificates that I think are particularly nice: The ones that you can redeem for an experience, instead of just stuff. Most movie theaters offer gift cards or certificates; these are great ways for families to stretch the budget on a night out. And while one ticket might be a fun item to find in a stocking, giving the recipient a 10-pack would be considered a splurge (especially if they like movies). You can also purchase gift tickets for museums, aquariums, and zoos near your recipients’ homes. Since many of these institutions are not-for-profit, it’s always a great way to help boost their already-strapped budgets. If your recipients are already into that kind of thing, consider purchasing an annual membership certificate for them instead. You can easily tuck these into an envelope and they travel extremely well. If you want to be a little more fancy (so the recipients realize the card contains a precious gift), you can even print and make your own “pillow box envelope” beforehand, and then puff it up before presenting it to them (there are a lot of templates online; just use cardstock or other types of stiff paper).
Bonus tip for Thanksgiving fliers: Process your holiday cards on the plane
If you’re flying for the holidays and expect to spend hours at the airport or in the air, here’s a great tip for you: Process your Christmas cards on the plane!
You know how crazy busy it gets once December rolls around. If you normally send out cards for the holidays, why not process them while you’re traveling? It requires a little extra planning and some organizational skills, but you can still manage to process a few hundred cards at your seat with relative ease.
First, the prep:
- Purchase or print your cards now. One option is to go with holiday postcards. Going this route will simplify this process significantly (and save on postage).
- Purchase your stamps now. Try to purchase books of self-adhesive stamps instead of the gummed ones that you have to lick. There is no cost difference between the two.
- Write out your holiday letter (if you do one of those) and make copies now (if you are sending regular cards in envelopes). Try to keep it down to a single sheet of paper (so go double-sided, use a smaller font, etc.)
- Print out your return address labels now.
- If you keep an online address book, print your contents out now. Personally, I don’t care for holiday card envelopes that have the “to” address on a label; it feels too much like bulk mail. These days I prefer to write the addresses out by hand.
Second, the packing:
- Take all the cards out of any packaging or boxes they came in. Separate out the envelopes from the cards, then put each in their own resealable zip-top baggie. Make sure to squish out any extra air from the baggies.
- Put all your stamps in a small baggie.
- If your return address labels are printed on a full sheet of labels, cut the sheets into single rows so that you have single strips. Accordion fold them so they fit in the baggie with your stamps, or place them in their own baggie.
- Put your holiday letters in a stiff envelope or two, but take a couple of extra gallon-sized baggies to hold them once they’ve been folded.
- Grab one or two pens, and optionally, a stiff envelope (such as FedEx or Priority Mail) or a clipboard to serve as a writing surface.
- Place your address book (or print-out), along with the rest of the items, into one large bag. You can use a 2-gallon ziptop baggie or a shopping bag. You will to be able to close or cinch the top and carry this bag onto the plane, and easily stuff everything back into the bag when you need to.
- Take extra gallon-sized baggies or shopping bags with you to place the finished cards.
Third, the doing. Some of these are assembly-line tasks that are easier to do while you’re waiting at the airport because you’ll appreciate the extra elbow room, and the tasks are mindless enough that you can still pay attention to things like boarding announcements (since it’ll take you a few minutes to gather your belongings before you can board).
- Add return address label – pull out a handful of envelopes at a time , and do this until you’ve done all of your envelopes, putting each handful back into the baggie.
- Stick stamps – pull out a handful of envelopes at a time to do this. You can do this with the address labels at the same time, although it’s faster to do them separately.
- Write down people’s addresses on the envelopes – do this until you have completed the task.
- Fold the holiday letters – you will need a firm surface for this.
- Sign the cards – if you and your partner typically sign them separately, you can both fold down your tray tables and get to work. Have your partner sign first to get it out of the way so you can take your time to…
- Personalize the cards – this is one step a lot of people skip when they are rushing through the process. But you’re stuck on a plane for the next 3 hours, so it’s the perfect time! Take out an envelope so you know who the card is for, then personalize the card. Add their names, your message, whatever you want.
- Finish it up – place your folded holiday letter inside your card, and tuck your card into the envelope. You can wait to glue/tape the envelope shut until later. Pack the completed envelope in a separate bag. You can take all of the completed cards and put them in a mailbox either at your connecting airport, or once you get to your destination.
If you don’t get done, you can do the rest on your flight home. Now, instead of just reading a paperback novel, you’re completely done with your holiday cards!