The holidays make for one of the busiest travel seasons in the U.S. as Americans trek to destinations all over the country to be home for the holidays or set off on end-of-the-year adventures, all while combating high airfares, crowds and a dash of general seasonal stress in the process.
But traveling during the holidays doesn’t have to turn you into the Grinch. With a little planning and the right attitude, you can survive any crowded airport or travel delay the season brings your way. And we have you covered with our holiday season travel survival guide.
Below you will find a number of booking tips, advice on how to travel with Christmas gifts, and how to avoid holiday season travel mistakes.
Do your research. Just like you would for holiday gifts, shop around for flights. Compare prices to see what's out there, but if you find an exceptional deal jump on it. Airlines must offer you the chance to hold a price or cancel a purchase on any non-refundable ticket bought at least seven days in advance for 24 hours after purchase. Use that time to see if there are any better deals out there or to give yourself peace of mind that you found a great deal.
Follow the deals. Make sure you're following airlines and travel deals sites on social media and sign up for their newsletters. Often, if flash sales pop up or deals are announced, you'll be the first to know.
Consider alternatives. Be flexible wherever you can, whether it's with your travel dates, departure and/or arrival airport, or destination. If you're heading home for the holidays, for example, your destination may be set in stone, but can you fly a few days early or, perhaps, on the actual holiday to save? Is it cheaper to fly into a nearby airport than the one in a major city? Considering all your options can save you money, but it can also save you the stress of holiday crowds.
Stick to a carry-on bag. Save time at the airport by packing everything in one carry-on bag. If you can manage with a small, well-organized carry-on, that's your best bet as you can skip the baggage check-in (and, in most cases, fees) all together.
Bring an extra (empty) bag. For gifts you receive, bring a folded-up duffel bag so you have the option of packing gifts to go. If you can get away with one checked bag and one carry-on on the return, it might be the most affordable way to get your holiday bounty home. Wear your heavier clothing. If you're packing an overcoat or heavy sweater for your trip, try to wear these rather than packing them to save space in your suitcase.
Pack a snack. Long lines at airport restaurants and shops means you could be waiting a long time to grab some grub. Pack your own snacks to get you through layovers, delays and the flight. Plus, it's typically cheaper than buying food at the airport.
Invest in hand sanitizer. The most wonderful time of the year is also the most sniffly time of the year for many travelers. Keep that in mind before you head for the airport, and pack plenty of hand sanitizer to help fend off germs. There's nothing worse than realizing during ascent that you're stuck in a cabin full of recycled air with a sickly seatmate.
Keep all the essentials with you. Anything you need to be accessible (such as medication) should be in your carry-on. Don't put these in your checked bags because a delay could mean you won't have access to these items for longer than expected.
Traveling with Gifts
Ship gifts, don't pack them. Packing gifts in your luggage often forces you to check bags at the airport and takes up valuable suitcase space. Skip the hassle and ship Christmas presents ahead of time so they'll be there when you arrive.
If you must pack gifts, pack well. Use plenty of padding (such as bubble wrap, towels or sweaters) to protect presents from rough handling. Also make sure they fit snugly in your suitcase without room to move around.
Don't wrap gifts. If you do bring Christmas gifts with you when you travel, just remember to save the wrapping until you arrive so you and your luggage can get through the security screening. Security will likely need to unwrap the gifts to inspect them.
Before you Leave the House
Stay healthy. You'll need to think on your feet when it comes to making last-minute travel decisions and the last thing you want to be is sick. Start getting a good night's sleep two or three nights before your flight, so that even if you're up late the night before, you're still generally rested.
Check your flights ahead of time. This seems like common sense, but with your mind in a dozen different places pre-flight you're likely to forget to check your flight status. Word to the wise: take the airline's phone number with you to the airport. If there's a last-minute delay or cancellation, call the airline directly instead of standing in line with hundreds of other stranded travelers hoping to get re-booked on a later flight.
Check in online. Most airlines let you check in on their website or on your smartphone. Take advantage of this to skip the check-in lines at the airport. Since cancellations are normal, airlines often overbook flights. Unfortunately, this can mean people get bumped from a flight when everyone shows up.
Charge all your devices before you leave. Before leaving the house, make sure your phone and other electronics have a full charge. You may have to turn them on at security, and you'll want to be able to communicate with friends and family to coordinate airport pick ups and drop offs. Charging stations are available at most U.S. airports, but may be hard to come by during busy holiday travel times.
Navigating the Airport
Use travel apps. Airline apps on your smartphone let you easily access up-to-date flight information, so you'll know about delays ahead of time. Apps like GateGuru give you gate information, security wait times and in-terminal dining options, too.
Take the family lane. If you are anxious about being rushed through security by impatient travelers, consider taking the family lane. Airports with more than one security line have one of these designated lanes, and you don't even need a family to use them: anyone requiring some extra time getting through security can wait in the family lane. Whether it's due to special needs, or you want to avoid dirty looks from hurried travelers behind you, the family lane is the place for you.
Call the airline. In the event of a travel delay, don't join the crowds at the airline counter. Instead, call the airline directly for faster service.