How To Win The Holiday Parking Game

Who in their right mind would try to park at a mall during the holidays, or search for street parking in places like Chicago with all those tourists around?

You can, with a minimum of muss and fuss. I've scored good parking spaces during the holidays, without having to run someone over, bribe a cop or risk a ticket. It takes timing, nerves and finesse. But here's how you can win the holiday parking game. And no smart talk about public transportation. That's too easy.

1. Strategy

. The goal, as Zorro The Gay Blade would say, is to make your Z and get out. We are not talking about a plan that says, "oh, I guess I'll go to the mall." NO. You must pick a place, and a time, and hunt for a spot like a hyena stalking a zebra. (Yes, we saw Life of Pi over Thanksgiving.)

The best strategy, of course, is to go early. The mall opens at 9 a.m.? Be there no later than 8:45 a.m. Alternatively, on the weekend, head out at 4:00 p.m. The all-day shoppers are worn out and headed to their cars. The evening shop-and-dine crowd hasn't arrived. And if there are late night shopping events during the week, you will score if you wait until about an hour before they end.

2. Hunting.

All right, you got up late, or you got stuck in traffic. That's fine. You will just have to hunt. To do so, you literally pick a lane, or two, since this will involve some circling. Pick a row near the entrance you want to use. Watch the door. Watch people come out the door. Watch them walk to their car. If they are anywhere near you, STOP and make eye contact. If they're parked nearby, they may give a nod, and you're golden.

If they keep walking, you have two choices. You can circle. You can also just wait. This drives me crazy, but people do it. They scoot over to the right, and signal cars behind to go around them. This is selfish, but it can yield results. You just wait until someone arrives at their car, and bully (at least mentally) everyone away. Don't do anything stupid like actually blocking anyone. And when you've found your spot, give people time to get in their car, don't honk to hurry them up unless they're really dawdling.

3. City streets.

In Chicago, I lived two short blocks away from Water Tower Place. Tens of thousands of tourists pay oodles to park there. They could have saved a ton of money by parking on the street in my neighborhood. Every city has side streets where you can find spots, and sometimes you can even nab good ones on main drags. I always had good luck in New York parking on Broadway in the morning, and on Madison around lunch time.

Don't try this when people are coming home from work, though, and be sure to check the street signs carefully to make sure where you're parking is a space, not a taxi stand or an area requiring a residential sticker. A news stand owner saved me from getting towed near Zabar's in New York. I wasn't so lucky in Chicago, but I learned that if I ever wanted to park where I did again, I needed to use my blinkers.

4. Parking garages.

By this, I mean the free ones at shopping malls, not the ones that will charge you $8 for 15 minutes in New Orleans. If you use a mall parking garage, do not pass go, but drive directly to the top level. A lot of people don't like the roof because it isn't covered, but the tradeoff is that you can usually get a spot by the door.

A second possibility is the floor between floors. You know how garages usually have a ground level, second and third floors? Sometimes, the second floor is less popular because there aren't direct entrances to the mall, you have to go up a flight or down a flight. Check this out, and you may get lucky.

5. Validation.

You want to avoid paying for parking if at all possible. That's easy at a mall, not so easy in a city. But as I learned in Chicago, lots of department stores and restaurants validate or offer a discount rate at a nearby garage. (So does the Goodman Theater, for its patrons. Don't try this without a theater ticket, but there's no reason you can't do some shopping before the show.)

Some restaurants have valet parking for patrons, too, and if you have a reservation, you can come early, drop off your car, and do a little shopping before your meal. It always pays to find out before you go where you can find the garage or whether the valets can help you out. Another idea: hospitals. Don't laugh. Check out the Northwestern University medical center parking garage the next time you're in the Windy City.

How do you survive parking in this season of joy and rabid consumers?