Holiday travel rarely goes exactly as expected. In December, here in the Midwest, it can be sunny and mild — almost balmy — for a few days. Then, a drastic switch, when a polar front suddenly moves in from the north and brings rain, snow or worse, ice.
That can wreak havoc for seniors who are on the road or traveling by air over the holiday to see family and friends. Highways back up and come to a complete stop. Flights are delayed or cancelled by the dozens. Even the most carefully planned itineraries can be thrown off.
Such circumstances can also create significant safety problems for older people.
Weather problems and cascading cancellations or delays in the air travel system can strand people, unprepared, for days at a time. For elders with chronic medical conditions that require daily medications, insulin, or other special needs, an extended delay can become dangerous.
With that in mind, let's talk today about travel strategies that our Deupree House and Episcopal Retirement Services care experts recommend Tristate seniors employ, so that they can stay safe during any emergencies that might crop up during the 2017 holiday season.
1. Be smart about scheduling your flights
It can be tempting to shop for flights based on lowest available price. But, especially during the holidays, it might be a better idea to shop based on flight characteristics.
If you're flying out of Cincinnati, try for a morning flight, at a non-peak traffic time (before or after rush hour), on a non-peak travel day (not on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, and not too close to the holiday itself).
In doing so, you can avoid some of the bigger hassles: traffic jams getting to and from the airport, long lines at check-in counters and security checkpoints, crowded planes and tighter connection times.
You might consider staying at a hotel near the airport the night before your flight and taking its shuttle over to the terminal in the morning. That ensures you'll have a nice, relaxing evening and good night's rest the night before, and gives you more time to sleep in or to get ready the morning of your flight.
Some airport hotels will even allow you to register and leave your car in their lot over the duration of your trip, saving you the expense of extended parking at the airport.
Scheduling a morning flight also gives you more leeway in the event of a flight delay or cancellation.
If you're on an evening flight, there'll be a limited number of substitute flights to which you could switch; you could get stranded in the airport overnight. If you schedule a morning flight, you'll have more options, and you'll have more luck booking a decent hotel room (the cost of which, hopefully, the airline will pick up), in the event you're stranded.
2. Schedule connecting flights through low-traffic, warm-climate airports if possible
Trying to connect through Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago or New York in the middle of a major winter storm? Good luck.
Going through Atlanta or Dallas-Ft. Worth (two of the busiest hubs in the country)? They may be in warmer places, and less likely to experience ice and snow events, but they're going to be quickly overwhelmed with re-routed customers.
You might try a lower-cost carrier that would connect you through a less-busy airport. Or, try to connect through a major carrier's warm-weather, secondary hub.
And allow yourself some cushion time between flights. Don't schedule a connecting flight that departs less than an hour after your first flight is scheduled to arrive. What happens if there's a small delay? You don't want to have to sprint through a busy airport, or risk missing your connector and getting stranded.
Instead, make sure you have about a two- or three-hour layover. If there's a delay, no worries; you'll make it on time. If there's not, have lunch at the airport. Sit and watch the planes come in and take off. Shop for souvenirs or have cocktails in the first-class lounge. There's plenty to keep you occupied.
3. If you're driving a long distance, plan overnight stops
Let's say you're driving from Cincinnati to New Jersey (650 miles) to visit your daughter and her family. That's at least a 10-hour drive. Add in weather factors, holiday traffic, construction delays, accident delays, meal, fuel and bathroom breaks, etc., and you could be looking at a 13- or 14-hour day in the car.
That's too much, especially if you're getting older. It'll tire you out, stress you out, decrease your ability to concentrate on the road, and can be painful if you have issues with chronic back or joint pain. It can also be downright dangerous if you have a serious medical condition, such as Type II diabetes.
Seniors with a history of a-fib or blood clotting disorders also risk a lot by staying on the road too long. Sitting in one position for an extended period causes blood to pool in your arms and legs, which in turn puts you in severe danger of forming clots called deep vein thromboses, or DVTs, which can later dislodge and cause a stroke or pulmonary embolism.
If you're driving more than 400 miles, or along a slow route, it's a much better idea to schedule an overnight stopover at a hotel, or at a friend or relative's house along the way. Try not to be in the car more than 6 to 8 hours in a day. You'll stay fresher and more alert on the road, and reduce your risk of developing a medical emergency.
4. Plan out weather emergency "failsafe" points along your route
Driving a long distance under the looming threat of a weather front on the move? Better get on the road early to beat it. But don't drive in a rush — that's equally unsafe.
Instead, ask your partner (navigator) to keep a close eye on the weather, using a smartphone app or the National Weather Service's website. Be prepared to dip off the road and stay overnight if the front looks like it'll overtake you before you reach your destination.
Really savvy older holiday travelers know to call and reserve several hotel rooms along their route, spaced out every 150-200 miles or so, so that they have ready-made failsafe points to ride out a storm if they're forced off the road.
So, in our Cincinnati-to-New Jersey example, you might make the drive in two days. On the first night, you could plan to stay in New Stanton (about 6 hours from Cincinnati), which is where many west-to-east travelers pick up the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
But you might also reserve two fail-safe rooms in Zanesville, OH (about 2½ hours from Cincy), and Washington, PA (about 4 hours away), just in case conditions deteriorate or you find yourself getting overly tired.
If you end up not needing those rooms, just call and cancel as you pass each point, or as you determine it won't be needed (check with the hotel about cancellation times and policies first, so you won't be charged for a no-show).
5. Keep your phone charged and carry blankets, food, water, a flashlight and medications in the car
If you're driving, make sure you keep your phone on the car charger, or on your portable solar charger, unless you absolutely have to unplug. Keep that battery full — especially if there's a danger of getting stuck on the road, out in the open, during a major snow or ice storm.
This is especially important if you'll be driving to the East Coast, through northern states, the Great Plains, or any mountainous areas, where big nor'easters or blizzards can stop traffic and strand motorists on the highway.
You need to be able to summon help. And, depending on the severity or duration of a storm, you need to be prepared to wait a long time to be rescued.
Of course, you can avoid the worry altogether by getting off the road before the weather hits.
6. Pack a carry-on or front seat "worst-case" bag for stranding scenarios
Let's say you do everything exactly right, but holiday travel or weather chaos reigns. You're stranded for a few days somewhere, and there's nothing you or anyone else can do about it. You can't move until the road opens or flights resume.
You need to make sure you have the items you most need ready at hand. Your carry-on bag, or a small bag that you can stow in the front or backseat of your car (where you can reach it without digging through other baggage), should absolutely contain all of the following:
- All your necessary daily medications (at least a five-day supply)
- Your blood sugar monitor and insulin, if you're diabetic (again, at least a five-day supply)
- Emergency snacks (granola bars, raisins, etc.) and bottled water
- A change of clothes, and two reserve sets of undergarments
- A heavy coat, sweater, or sweatshirt
- Cell phone and wall charger (or, better yet, a portable solar charger)
- Money, passport, tickets and other essentials
- A small box of laundry detergent
- Change for laundromat machines
- Basic toiletries (soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, shaving needs, deodorant, shower cap, etc.)
7. Be flexible
Ultimately, that's the best holiday travel advice we could give you. Hope for the best, plan for the worst and accept anything that falls in between.
Have a joyous holiday season in 2017, Cincinnati seniors, and remember to stay safe as you travel to see your loved ones and friends!