This is the time of year when traveling can test one’s nerves: inclement weather, delays, lost luggage, overbooked planes, crowded trains, frustrated fliers, drivers with road rage, and stressed-out gate agents are all potential hazards during the holiday travel season. And while there are some things you can’t control, there are ways to make the most of your holiday travels this year. These time-tested tips will minimize the mania and get you from point A to point B with your sanity intact.
1. Avoid booking flights departing from the busiest airports. If you live in or near a major metropolitan area, chances are you have at least one airport to fly out from. If that’s the case, skip the big, busy ones and opt for a “secondary” airport instead. For example, if you live in New York City, check out flight options from Westchester County Airport or MacArthur Airport. They may not be as convenient to get to, but they’ll be less crowded than primary hubs, and flights from smaller airports can be cheaper during the holidays.
2. Travel on holidays. Whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, flight prices are almost always cheaper on holidays than the days leading up to them. As a bonus, airports tend to be less crowded on holidays, and there’s often a wonderfully festive mood both at the gate and on the plane.
3. Always take a carry-on, never check your bags. The amount of lost luggage tends to soar over the holidays, so it’s best to avoid that possibility altogether. Save yourself the stress of a lost suitcase by only using carry-on bags during the holiday travel season. Just be sure to double-check that your luggage meets the airline’s requirements and board the plane as early as possible, since overhead compartments tend to fill up quickly.
4. Don’t pack gift-wrapped presents. They can slow you down at airport security, which will frustrate you and your fellow passengers. The best idea is to ship your gifts ahead of time and lighten your load. The TSA allows wrapped presents in luggage, but they also have the right to unwrap any items, so it’s smarter to leave them unwrapped until you reach your destination.
5. Arrive early. If you must travel on the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas, plan to arrive at the airport or train station earlier than you would normally. Both places will undoubtedly be zoos on those days.
6. Avoid the holiday traffic. If you can take public transportation to the airport or train station, do so. Holiday travel means holiday traffic, and taking a car means you’ll need to leave even earlier than you already will in order to arrive early.
7. Pack healthy snacks. Bringing your own snacks (nuts, dried fruit, popcorn) will save money and keep you from stress eating at unhealthy airport restaurants. Also, having something handy to nibble on means no waiting in long lines for food. Plus, especially if you’re traveling with kids, snacks can help prevent emotional meltdowns under stressful travel conditions.
8. Don’t count on finding an outlet. Airports and planes are getting better about providing more electrical outlets, but it’s far from guaranteed that you’ll have access to one. To make sure you stay charged on the go, bring a high-capacity battery pack, preferably one that can charge more than one device simultaneously if you’re traveling with someone else.
9. If you get stuck, find the best features your airport has to offer. It’s no secret that all airports are not created equal and frankly, some are better to be stuck in than others. That being said, there are usually a few highlights at every airport, but the key is to know about them in advance. For example, San Francisco International Airport has a yoga room, museum, aquarium, and great drinking and dining options, all of which can make a delayed flight a lot easier to deal with.
10. Spend extra for a better experience. If you don’t have elite status or credit card privileges, consider spending a little bit more money to enjoy lounge access, seats with extra leg room, and/or priority boarding access. All three can make different parts of your journey more enjoyable, and a priority boarding pass can help prevent you having to check your carry-on.
11. Look for pop-up kiosks and shops. With the number of passengers passing through airports reaching their annual highs, brands and companies know that this is an ideal time to do something special for customers, so keep your eyes peeled for temporary stations and stores where you might find extra electrical outlets or even be able to win prizes. For example, as part of its holiday “Delight My Delay” campaign, Sheraton Hotels and Resorts is inviting delayed fliers to its holiday kiosk at JFK’s Terminal 7 (December 21–24, 2015) for a chance to win prizes including resort vacations, cameras, drones, gift cards, and more. The more delayed the travel, the more chances he or she will have to win.
12. Make technology work for you. Twitter is an essential communications tool for travelers, since contacting airlines through their handles has proven to be an effective means of getting customer service. You can also ask the TSA about questions pertaining to your travels by tweeting @asktsa. Outside of Twitter, there are plenty of mobile apps that can make your trips easier. GateGuru, for example, provides real-time updates on airport security lines, flight delays, gate changes, airport amenities, and more.
13. Know where to go for help. If your flight is severely delayed or canceled, call the airline immediately to rebook while you’re standing in line waiting to talk to the ticket agent. If the airline can’t rebook you soon, look for alternate flights on other airlines—it may be worth it to buy a one-way ticket to get to your destination on time.
14. Take a deep breath. Traveling around the holidays is stressful and a lot of what happens is out of your control, so try to relax and stay calm. If at any point you feel like you’re stressed to the extreme, it’s best to sit down and take a moment for yourself. Close your eyes; take deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth; and slowly count to ten. Repeat as many times as necessary until you feel more at ease.
15. Get ready for your road trip. If driving is part of your holiday travel plans, make sure your car is in tip-top shape for the journey ahead. Inclement weather can strike at any time, so it’s best to be prepared. At least a day before you depart, check the tire pressure, make sure there’s enough oil and antifreeze in the engine, and verify that your windshield wipers and all lights are working. Make sure your emergency kit is stocked with bottled water, non-perishable snacks, jumper cables, a first-aid kit, and blankets; if you don’t have an emergency kit, now’s the time to assemble one.
For tips on how to breeze through airport security this holiday season, check out the video below.