It’s that most wonderful time of the year when U.S. airports are jammed, overhead bins crammed, flights delayed, and travel headaches numerous. And this year will be no different. The price-charting app Hopper’s holiday travel outlook notes passenger totals for domestic U.S. flights are approaching pre-pandemic levels, while airline staffing issues have resulted in fewer flights (and increased delays and cancellations). It’s a perfect storm that’s pushed prices for holiday flights close to 40 percent higher than last year. Nerves understandably frazzle when delays hit on a tight travel schedule, so prepare yourself with the following tips, don’t forget your documents, and remember what’s ultimately waiting at your destination: family, friends, and holiday cheer.
1. Download must-have apps.
There are apps that tell you how long you’ll have to wait on your airport security line, help you get the assistance you need when your flight plans derail, and more. Here are a few of my favorites.
2. Don’t wrap gifts that are going into your carry-on.
The TSA can ask you to unwrap gifts in your carry-on for examination, slowing down you and everyone else in the security line (and ruining your crisp corner folds.) They can also unwrap gifts in checked luggage as well. Wrap them when you arrive or send them by mail.
3. Pack so it’s a breeze to get your holiday gifts home.
You may have figured out how to get to Grandma’s with only carry-ons (maybe you ordered all your gifts for your aunts and uncles and cousins online and had them shipped), but what about getting home again with the gifts they give you? Here’s my strategy for bringing home a lot more stuff than you started with.
4. Check in for your flight online 24 hours ahead.
Checking in the day before reduces your chance of getting bumped from an oversold flight and increases your chance of snagging a better seat—one made available 24 hours in advance. That’s when elite-status frequent fliers get upgraded from coach, leaving behind prime empty seats in the forward cabin or exit rows.
5. Leave for the airport earlier than usual.
You know all those drivers you battle with for a parking spot at the mall? You’ll now be battling them on the road to the airport. And in the parking garage. Allow time for being stuck in traffic. Use the predictor function in your favorite navigation app (Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze, etc.) to estimate your travel time and alert you when to leave, based on the current traffic pattern and your desired arrival. And if possible, pre-book a parking spot; we’ve had good experiences with The Parking Spot. If you can’t prebook, some airports offer frequently updated availability reports for their own parking lots.
And: If you’re scheduling a car service or you’re ride-sharing to the airport, add an extra 15 to 20 minutes to your start time to account for any traffic delays.
6. Flight delayed? Relax in an airport lounge.
More and more pay-as-you-go independent lounges have been popping up all over the U.S. For $25 to $50 you can escape the circus in the terminal and kick back in comfy armchairs—with Wi-Fi, televisions, and snacks—or even shower or nap. As for club lounges run by airlines, many now sell day passes for $60—and give you access to airline agents who can be more helpful in fixing travel snafus than agents you talk to at the gate or on the phone. Use an app like LoungeBuddy to find and book lounges in your airport. Priority Pass is among the membership organizations that offer access to lounges; pre-paid packages start at $99 per year (Priority Pass is also offered as a perk with credit cards such as American Express Platinum and Chase’s Sapphire Reserve).
7. Be the first to know if your flight is canceled.
If a storm cancels your flight, you’ll be in a mad race with everyone else to grab what few seats are available on alternate flights. If bad weather is brewing in the days before your trip, sign up for flight status alerts, and also check your airline’s website frequently so that, as soon as the airline announces it’s waiving ticket-change fees, you can take action. Also monitor the airline’s Twitter feed; it sometimes provides the quickest updates. Be prepared for anything by downloading essential apps and tools for winter travel, and bookmark this tip on how to never wait on hold with an airline again.
8. Flight canceled? Look for a storm-free hub to connect in.
FlightStats.com tells you at a glance which airports and airlines are suffering weather-related delays and, just as important, which are not. Note which hubs are having no weather issues (Las Vegas, for instance) and rebook to connect through one of them. (Vegas may not be in the linear path to your final destination, but you could end up at your destination much quicker than if you remain in a snowbound airport. And, if you need to overnight in Vegas, there are inexpensive hotels and frequent flights out.)
9. Don’t waste time waiting on hold.
Rather than phoning the airline’s jammed U.S. customer service line and getting stuck on hold for hours while the few available seats to your destination vaporize, call one of the airline’s English-speaking overseas reservations numbers—say, in England, Germany, Australia, or Singapore. (You’ll find these numbers on the airline’s website.) Here’s how to never have to wait on hold with an airline customer-service center again.
Or check your airline’s app. You can often rebook yourself without paying change fees. Initiating a text chat session from the app (if available) will also result in quicker responses. Plus, your frequent-flier status can push you up the queue
10. Score a free future airline ticket.
‘Tis the season for oversold flights, so there’s a chance you could score a free or discounted ticket by volunteering to take a later plane. Delta and American are among airlines that actually ask flyers to name their own voucher amount when checking bags at their kiosk, so passengers compete with themselves and avoid escalating gate auctions. Another strategy: If you’re willing to volunteer to be delayed for a few hours in exchange for a discounted or free future ticket, consider approaching the gate agent before they have made an announcement, so you’re first on the list of volunteers. But don’t accept a voucher without making yourself aware of all the restrictions (blackout dates, expiration date, etc.) and ensuring you have a confirmed seat on a later flight.