How to Make Holiday Travel As Painless as Possible

I don’t hate the holidays, but I loathe holiday travel. There is absolutely nothing pleasurable about dragging yourself out of bed one morning and preparing to travel hundreds of miles to see your family. Yes, family is great, but when facing hours of spine-contorting, leg-cramping, mind-numbing agony, seeing Mom and Dad isn’t nearly enough payoff at the end of the tunnel. It was for this reason that I decided to skip going home for Thanksgiving and just roast a turkey breast in my apartment’s dinky oven.

In addition to the normal wear and tear of the holiday traveling experience, there are a number of factors that can add to the physical and emotional pain of travel. Here are some of them:

  1. Time – This really goes without saying: the number of hours you spend on the road or in the air significantly affects how you’ll feel along the way. If it’s a two-hour jaunt, no sweat. 6-8 hours? Painful, but manageable. 12 hours and over? Excuse me, I’ll be in the fetal position.
  2. Distance – Much like time, the greater the distance you have to travel, the worse you’ll feel. If you’re crossing timezones or seeing trees whizz by hour after hour, you’ll tire out much faster than if you’re traveling somewhere closer for the same amount of time.
  3. Comfort – Throughout your life, you’ve always wished that you could tall if you’re short and vice versa. Well, when you travel, there is a definitive advantage in being short. Placing luggage in the overhead compartments can suck if you’re short, but you have that all-important feature: room. Tall people get stuck shifting every which way, searching for any comfortable position, but there’s none to be found. Your back hurts from improper support, your legs hurt from being locked in position against rigid seats, and your head hurts from dealing with the toll this discomfort takes.
  4. Time of Day – This is an often overlooked factor, but an important one. If you start out at the crack of dawn, the trip is going to suck, no matter how long it is. Starting at night is okay if you have a steady supply of energy drinks and don’t plan to do anything that first day you’re home, but if it’s a 6-12 hour trip, the undisputed best time to start is 10am. You’re awake enough to function, and you’ll be tired enough at the end of it to pass out immediately.
  5. Cost – I’m the type of person that dwells on my money, so this is an important factor to me. Taking into account food and transportation costs weighs on me my entire ride, and if I have to pay too much for travel, I start to beat myself up. If you’re like me, sometimes paying for the fastest route from point A to point B isn’t always worth it.
  6. Method of Transportation – This, in my opinion, is the single most important factor in determining just how miserable you’ll be heading home for the holidays. Unless you’re traveling from Miami to some other port city, you’re not taking a boat. If you are, you’re probably insufferable. So for us regular folk, we’ve got four options: car, plane, train or bus. I’ll weigh the pros and cons of each method after a quick break.

Now, to give you some perspective, here’s my situation. I’m six-foot-four, and I carry around a good bit of weight, around 230 pounds. I live in Pittsburgh right now doing a year of service in AmeriCorps (shameless plug!), but my hometown is about 10 miles outside of Boston. In total, I have to travel around 600 miles to get home. So already you’re seeing why I hate the travel: it’s a long trip with no straight line to route through. This is compounded by the fact that I’m a tall person with annoyingly long legs. So how can I make this trip as painless as possible? It all comes down to factor 5: how I’m getting home. Let’s rattle through them:

  1. Car – On the surface, this sounds like the worst way to travel. Driving at a steady 75-80mph the whole way with 2 hour breaks for meals and gas, the trip takes me 12 hours. At first blush, this sounds like the worst way to travel. “You mean it’s going to take forever, and I have to be alert and performing tasks?! Screw that.” I once thought this way, too, until I actually drove it in one day. In all honesty, while it did kinda suck, it wasn’t awful. Including gas and food, a round trip costs me 120 bucks, which is as cheap as you can get. With a pillow behind me to support my back, and with infrequent stops, I never got overly sore or stiff, and I made it without wanting to run a sword through my gut. Being in complete control of your travel is a great feeling. However, it did take 12 hours of mind-numbing boredom, and I had to wake up early to make it to my destination at a reasonable hour. Grade: B
  2. Bus – Let me start with this: buses are Godless inventions. I have never had a pleasant experience on a bus. They take longer than cars because of frequent stops and layovers, they’re prone to breakdowns, the drivers are erratic as hell, and you have to wake up supremely early to catch them. You’re confined to a cramped space for anywhere from 14 to 20 hours, depending on what crappy bus company you choose, and you can’t stop for food and water when you need to. Instead of traveling alone, you’re surrounded by strangers who could annoy you at any given moment. Add to that the increased cost, and you have a totally miserable travel experience. The only saving grace is that instead of driving, you can try to sleep or read a book or do some work if you’re on the unicorn Megabus that has working WiFi. Is that one pro worth all the cons? No. Grade: D-
  3. Plane – Planes are fast. That’s the best thing about planes – they’re faster than Speedy Gonzalez compared to every other form of travel. A plane from Pittsburgh to Boston takes a little under two hours. Because of that, you can take a plane any time of day and it doesn’t matter. With that said, everything else about flying suuuuuuucks. Start with travel to the airport. Long term parking, if you drive, or paying a friend to drop you off. Then the ticket, which costs anywhere from two times to four times more than driving. Then security, where you get cavity searched by a giant rotating magnet. Then the plane seats, which are so narrow and confined that by the time I land, my legs feel like tenderized steak and my back screams bloody murder. Then your fellow passengers, who will take every opportunity to fall asleep on your shoulder or scream their stupid baby heads off. Every single second of plane travel is mental and physical torture. But hey, it’s fast. Grade: C+
  4. Train – Trains rival buses in length, time and time of day factors. They take 14+ hours to get from Pittsburgh to Boston, and you have to be up by 5am to catch a taxi to the station. They’re also slightly more expensive than buses, but much cheaper than planes. So what’s the upside? Put simply: comfort. Trains are by far the easiest way to travel. Amtrak and the like don’t operate on the airliner philosophy of herding as many sheeple into a vacuum-sealed airtube as they can; there’s plenty of leg room. You hardly have to sit next to someone for very long, allowing you to stretch and recline and pretty much live within your own little bubble. WiFi is abundant, bathrooms are numerous and usually pretty cleanly, and there’s a café car. You can walk around on a train like a real live person, and not feel like a calf about to be harvested for veal. Everyone is relaxed, you can enjoy the scenery, and you don’t have to worry about baggage fees. As a person who gets really stiff when stuck in one place too long, the freedom of being able to walk around whenever I want and even sit at a table to eat is incomparable. Grade: A-

Holiday travel will never be a painless proposition. Invariably, something will happen you don’t anticipate, whether it be traffic or flight delays or inclement weather. Just remember to weigh the positives and negatives as they apply to you. For me, comfort and cost are the most important things. Maybe for you, it’s time and distance, since you have to cross two time zones. Whatever your reasoning, travel will suck, but it’s up to you to minimize the suckitude. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about that Greyhound.

Oh, and bring a pillow.