’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house there were guests dropping in, and burning dinners to douse!
Whether it’s relatives who unexpectedly show up at your doorstep or a roast that looks like it went through the wringer, 11th-hour holiday dilemmas can turn an otherwise jolly season into one of the most stressful—and potentially wallet-draining—times of the year.
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But there’s no need to hit the panic button. Tackling late-breaking mishaps doesn’t have to break your budget or put a damper on your festive mood.
We rounded up some common holiday disaster scenarios and asked a few lifestyle experts and consumer pros to offer up advice that will help restore peace in the home and your goodwill toward men (at least until the next big holiday get-together).
The best news? These fixes take 24 hours or less.
Scenario No. 1: The Surprise Houseguest for Whom You Don’t Have a Gift
It’s your year to play host to out-of-town family, and everyone will be arriving in a few short hours. Just as you finish curling the ribbon on your last present, your brother texts, asking if his new flame, Jane, can crash the festivities.
“No problem!” you respond, not wanting to be a Grinch. But there is a problem. You don’t have a present for Jane, and you don’t want her to feel left out during the midnight gift exchange.
The Budget-Friendly Solution: Quick—text your brother back and find out what Jane’s favorite spirits are.
In the time you have left, it should be easy to quickly pick up a bottle of something she likes at the local wine and liquor store, suggests party stylist and entertaining expert Laurén LaRocca of lifestyle site Twink + Sis. (And some stores even deliver!)
If she’s not a big drinker, “you can also pick up [her] favorite treat or food indulgence,” LaRocca adds. “[Is she] a fan of salted caramels or gourmet popcorn? These items are usually easy to find last-minute, especially at Christmastime,” LaRocca says.
If you simply don’t have enough time to run out the door (or little brother only gave you 20 minutes’ notice, like he always does), then head straight online for the most accessible gift of them all: a print-at-home gift certificate in a denomination that fits your budget.
“Anyone can use an Amazon or Target gift certificate. Print it and put it inside a nice card, tied with a pretty bow,” LaRocca suggests.
Scenario No. 2: The Dog Ate the Christmas Turkey … and Other Tales of Dinner Woe
You set your freshly roasted turkey on the kitchen table, not realizing you’ve left the door ajar. Your neighbor’s dogs can’t resist the wafting aroma, break into your house and leave behind little more than bones on the floor.
O.K., so we’ve cribbed this scene from “A Christmas Story” for dramatic effect. While it’s highly unlikely that your family dinner will be ruined by a pack of hungry hounds, it is possible that a power outage, a bevvy of unexpected guests, or your own failed attempts to time your cooking properly will leave you in desperate need of a new dish—or three.
The Budget-Friendly Solution: Fear not, says Erika Lenkert, entertaining expert and author of “The Last-Minute Party Girl: Fashionable, Fearless, and Foolishly Simple Entertaining.” There are many ways to affordably feed your guests when you’re down to the wire.
If your dilemma is that you’re afraid you won’t have enough to accommodate last-minute party crashers, check to see which filling foods in your pantry can be whipped into a simple side dish. Breads, cheeses, nuts, potatoes, beans and high-fiber fruits and vegetables, for example, can help satisfy empty stomachs even if they aren’t consumed in large quantities.
“A nice round of baked brie, perhaps with a side of dried fruits and nuts, and an abundance of sliced baguette, will go a long way,” Lenkert says.
Marcey Brownstein, of New York–based Marcey Brownstein Catering & Events, suggests whipping up mini hors d’oeuvres using soups you may already have in your fridge. Her “soup sips” involve heating up fresh or frozen soup, pouring it into shot glasses and garnishing with sour cream and fresh-snipped herbs.
But what if your issue is that you accidentally set the temperature too high on your Christmas bird, leaving it a charred mess? Or maybe you have the opposite problem: You set the temperature too low, which means your dinner hasn't cooked through.
“A burnt bird is no fun,” Brownstein says. “However, if you peel off the burnt skin and the top layer of burnt meat, you should be able to salvage at least a few pounds.”
Brownstein suggests using the recovered meat to make turkey pot pies. All you need are vegetables (carrots, celery, onions or anything else you have on hand), a quick roux (flour, butter and milk), and either a premade pie crust or a savory streusel topping made with flour, nuts and butter.
If you have an undercooked bird, “let it cool, then with poultry shears cut up the bird and put it onto a baking sheet covered with foil,” Brownstein says. “Cook the bird, cut up, for about half an hour at 375 F, and it should definitely be done by then.”
And in the case of a power outage? Fire up the grill—or get a blaze going in your fireplace. (Why not? The pioneers did it.) Here’s more on how to cook in your fireplace.
“If you rebook and pay for an alternative flight on your own, your current carrier will not reimburse you—they have to be the one who makes the changes.”
Scenario No. 3: The Delivery Guy Plays Grinch
You were good about shopping far enough in advance so that all your gifts would be ready and wrapped by Christmas morning. Unfortunately, your delivery guy didn’t have the same idea—and suddenly the package that was supposed to be under your tree is still on a truck two states away.
The Budget-Friendly Solution: “Here, the notion that it’s the thought that counts can play in your favor,” Lenkert says. “You can still surprise guests by printing out an image of the item you’ve purchased for them and writing a note letting them know it’ll soon be theirs.”
Then, rather than mope about the missing presents, make the most of the time you have together. “Serve yummy food and drinks and crank up those Christmas tunes,” suggests LaRocca. “Play classic group games like Pictionary or charades to create special holiday memories that no one will ever forget!”
After the festivities are over, it’s also worth contacting your online retailer to see whether they will offer some kind of credit, coupon or future discount as a mea culpa for delays that were not caused by bad weather.
“Delays beyond the promised date that are under their control will generally be mitigated by the seller,” explains Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).
Remember, you also always have the option to cancel if the shipment won’t arrive until after your guests are gone. “In the U.S., there is a Federal Trade Commission rule covering orders by mail, telephone and online that requires sellers to notify consumers if their orders cannot be delivered within the time promised—and give them the choice to cancel for a refund or wait longer,” explains Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at CFA. “There are no exceptions for things like bad weather. So the consumer would always have the right to cancel.”
Scenario No. 4: You Are Bumped From Your Flight
It’s been an unseasonably warm winter, so there’s little chance bad weather will delay your flight, right? So you book a later flight that gets you into your hometown just in time for the holiday dinner. That’s when Snowmageddon—or mechanical issues, or airline overbooking—hits, leaving you stranded at the airport and figuring out how to get home.
The Budget-Friendly Solution: In this instance, it’s important to really know your rights and options as a consumer. For example, if you’re bumped from an oversold domestic flight, you’re entitled by law, with a few exceptions, to compensation, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fly Rights guide.
If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you on their next available flight, at no additional charge. If that flight is three hours later, but there’s a flight on another carrier that leaves sooner, you could ask the first airline to endorse your ticket from the other carrier. They’re under no obligation to say yes, but it never hurts to check.
“Carriers often have reciprocal agreements that allow for such booking,” Gillis says. But, he warns, never book it on your own. “If you rebook and pay for an alternative flight on your own, your current carrier will not reimburse you—they have to be the one who makes the changes.”
As soon as you find out you’ve been bumped or your flight is delayed due to airline-related causes, move fast to rebook. Call the customer service rep from your phone and hop on your laptop at the same time to find alternative flights—this almost always beats the long lines at the counters, Gillis says, and will hopefully increase the chances that you actually will be home for Christmas.