Take some of the headache out of Christmas travel

Many of us have to travel at Christmas. But nobody wants to compound two days of misery at the hands of their in-laws with delays, breakdowns or money problems. Tim Bennett offers some practical tips to make festive travel a less taxing - and less expensive - experience.

Many of us go travelling at Christmas whether it's a holiday abroad, or simply to visit relatives. But as well as hunting down the perfect Christmas gift for your in-laws, or working out what to pack, it's worth spending a bit of time planning, to cut down the cost and hassle of your journey.

Christmas travel: going abroad

Spending money is one of the first things to think about. With the pound sinking fast - it hit a record low against the euro this week travelling anywhere overseas is becoming horribly expensive. And with the Bank of England base rate falling as more diabolical economic news arrives this week we've had the worse retail sales in three years - our currency could well be set to drop further. So if you are planning to buy currency for Christmas you may as well do it now. You can compare prices from various providers for different currencies and different amounts at moneysavingexpert.com. Also, with the pound so weak, if you have any foreign currency left over from a trip, keep it for the next one if you can, rather than switching it back into sterling.

On that point, those who let out overseas property in Europe or even the US during the holidays should consider getting the rent paid in the stronger overseas currency rather than sterling. Indeed if you start receiving regular overseas income, or travel abroad frequently, it could also be worth opening up a foreign currency bank account.

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For example, HSBC offers accounts in euros and US dollars with a £3 monthly fee and no minimum balance. The downside is the current interest rate 0%. But what you lose in interest on say a $5,000 deposit, you'll probably make up on the exchange rate if sterling plunges further. See moneysupermarket.com for more information about overseas accounts.

Dealing with travel nightmares

Getting your travel money is one thing you can control unfortunately, making sure you actually make it abroad, along with your luggage, is out of your hands somewhat. Delayed flights and lost luggage can ruin your hopes for a relaxing holiday so is there anything you can do if it happens to you?

Under Civil Aviation Authority rules you can claim back up to €600 for a delayed flight barring the airline being able to prove "extraordinary circumstances" - although to qualify for the maximum compensation, the distance needs to be over 3,500km and the delay more than four hours. And if you are delayed more than five hours through cancellation your rights include a complete refund or a rerouting of the original flight. See the CAA website for more details.

On lost or delayed baggage, the situation is murkier. Claiming compensation under the "Montreal Convention" can involve plenty of time and paper shuffling. That's a pity, as around one million of us experienced a problem last year with BA, the worst offender, losing 22 bags per 1,000 according to the Association of European Airlines.

A good bet is adequate travel insurance. But even without that, once your luggage has been delayed for 21 days, the minimum period for a claim under the Convention Rules, you can make a claim by writing to the airline. Like an insurer the airline will probably ask for a list of items in the bag, and perhaps for original receipts. The maximum liability is 1,000 special drawing rights (SDR), which is a "unit of account" defined by the IMF. At the moment, one SDR is worth about £1, so the maximum liability would be £1,000. See the website of the Air Transport Users Council (the aviation consumer watchdog) for more.

Christmas travel in the UK

If you're off on a visit to family rather than heading to the beach, train travellers should book ahead to get the best fares try thetrainline.com and check all the alternatives. For example, two single tickets might work out cheaper than a return. Also if you can face travelling at less popular times early morning and late evenings for example, you'll increase your chances of getting a bargain fare.

Anyone coming to London should consider adding a London transport travel pass to their rail ticket the tube and/or bus travel card often works out a bit cheaper that way and you'll save yourself a painful wait in a ticket queue once you arrive. If you visit London regularly consider a pre-pay oyster card it halves the cost of most journeys in the capital, automatically charges you the cheapest fare and you can recharge it online. See tfl.gov.uk/oyster for more information.

Lastly, some advice for drivers. If, like me, you only use your car every now and again, and Christmas counts as one of your bigger journeys, do some basic checks. When was your car last serviced for example? Has anyone topped up the anti-freeze in your engine radiator and windscreen washer tank recently? And when did you last check the tyre pressure? That last one is 20p well spent at a garage.

But even if you've done the basic checks, any car can still go wrong. Remarkably the AA reckons eight million of us confidently take to our (often freezing) roads with no breakdown cover. This is a false economy. One emergency call out could easily cost more than a year's cover and a typical motorist could break down 20 times in their driving life according to Direct Line Breakdown.

So where to buy? Some current account holders with Lloyds and Barclays for example may already get basic cover as a free perk so check that first. Then see whether your car insurer offers a discount on breakdown cover if you buy through them. Otherwise policies offering varying levels of cover can be had from as little as £30.25 a year from Rescuemycar.com up to £134.63 for a comprehensive plan bought online from the AA. You can shop around using sites such as moneysupermarket.com or confused.com or try the main providers direct at theaa.com, rac.co.uk and greenflag.com.

Lastly, if you plan to take a car abroad, check whether your cover still applies. After all, no-one wants to celebrate Christmas in a French lay-by.

Tim graduated with a history degree from Cambridge University in 1989 and, after a year of travelling, joined the financial services firm Ernst and Young in 1990, qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1994.

He then moved into financial markets training, designing and running a variety of courses at graduate level and beyond for a range of organisations including the Securities and Investment Institute and UBS. He joined MoneyWeek in 2007.