Air travel is a challenge any day of the year, but the agony is amped up during the holidays. Unless you want to recreate the chaotic running-through-the-airport scene from the movie "Home Alone," read on.
Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the hectic holiday travel season. Some 50.9 million people traveled 50 miles or more away from home last Thanksgiving, according to the American Automobile Association. More than half of them - 28.5 million passengers - were projected to travel on U.S. airlines during the 12-day Thanksgiving air-travel period (November 17 through 28) last year, according to Airlines for America.
From how to prep for holiday travel to space-saving packing hacks to how to stay entertained at the airport, we've got you covered. To ensure you're prepared, organized, and sane, so you can concentrate on celebrating the holidays, check out our ultimate airport survival guide.
Get (and Stay) Healthy
There are few things worse than traveling while sick (canceling your entire trip because of a major illness comes to mind). Consider springing for the travel insurance offered when booking your trip, especially if it's a pricey trip.
Before you buy insurance, check to make sure you aren't already covered by your heath insurance, credit cards, auto club, or homeowners insurance. No matter what you buy, be sure to read the fine print to see what is covered and what isn't covered. If you're traveling abroad, make sure you're caught up on immunizations and, if you need them, get them as far in advance as possible. Don't forget to get any medication prescriptions filled and keep your immune system up with probiotics and vitamins - talk to your doctor about your options.
Depending on the destination, you may need to prep by getting immunizations, taking malaria medications, or buying converters or adaptors for your electronics. Make a list (and check it twice) well in advance of your trip to make sure you and your family have everything you need.
Skip the Line
Sign up for TSA Pre-Check to avoid having to stand in line. If you sign up for TSA Pre-Check, it can take a few months to get approved. For instant gratification, consider paying extra for expedited service like that offered by programs like CLEAR and Even More Speed by JetBlue. Before heading to the airport, call the TSA's toll free line (1-855-787-2227) to see what to expect during screening and get questions answered about screening policies and procedures.
Check in Online
Skip the check-in queue by checking in online. Most travelers can check in online or via their airline's app 24 hours in advance for domestic flights and up to 72 hours prior to international flights.
Hit the Road
Use mobile apps like Waze, which crowdsources its traffic conditions, to map the quickest route to the airport. Leave early in case of weather (mobile apps like Dark Sky can provide hyperlocal current and future weather conditions) or traffic delays (even if your flight is delayed). Allow enough time to get through security (two hours for domestic and three hours for international) because TSA Pre-Check isn't guaranteed to be open and even flights that are delayed could leave earlier than new posted times.
Savvy travelers pack light. Not only will you save time by not having to wait in line to check your bags nor wait post-flight to collect them, but you won't have to stress about possibly losing your luggage or paying for checked baggage fees. Try to stick to one carry-on that can fit under your seat, so you don't have to stress about overhead space.
Think you can't do it? Try these space saving tips: Roll your clothes and use packing cubes to keep clothes compactly configured in your carryon; stuff socks inside shoes and bring only what you need; skip the toiletries and use what the hotel provides or pick travel sizes up at your destination.Have a favorite makeup or cologne you can't live without? Stock up on samples to conserve space. Don't forget to put the following in your carryon: ID, wallet, tickets, travel documents, medications, cellphone, and laptop. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a great Pack Smart guide.
Eat before you leave for the airport, and consider bringing snacks. Avoid getting dehydrated by bringing an empty plastic water bottle through security to fill up with water on the other side. Not only will bringing snacks and a water bottle help you save money, but bringing a refillable water bottle saves the environment, and you won't have to chug water while standing in the TSA line.
Whether you're in TSA Pre-Check or not, breeze through the TSA security line by being prepared. Wear a simple, comfy outfit for the flight, so you don't have multiple layers and complicated shoes to slip on and off; keep your 3-1-1 liquids in a clear, quart-size plastic bag; and save the holiday gift wrapping for your destination (while wrapped gifts are allowed, the TSA discourages this because they might need to unwrap them to take a closer look). Check the TSA's holiday travel tips. If you're bringing food, check out the TSA's guide for what you can bring on the plane. Not sure what can be carried on? Enter the item in the search box on the TSA's What Can I Bring? web page. Consider downloading the TSA's MyTSA, a free mobile app that has the most up-to-date policies. If you or your traveling companions have disabilities or medical conditions, TSA Cares has information about what to expect during screening: 1-855-787-2227.
With millions of people expected to fly this holiday season, don't expect everything to run smoothly. Free apps like meditation app Headspace can help you find a moment of zen amidst chaos.
Be Ready for Delays
Map out the airport's amenities like rooms for nursing infants, pet relief areas, and charging stations for electronics. Many airports have Mamava, pods for nursing or pumping (see the full list of locations on Mamava's website). Thanks to a federal regulation that requires airports that serve more than 10,000 passengers a year to have pet relief areas in each terminal for service animals, many airports have expanded this amenity to travelers jetting with their pets: Boston's Logan International Airport has Petports and Los Angeles International Airport has what is calls pet parks.
From pre-flight massages to playgrounds, many airports offer amazing amenities. Some of our favorites include the airport art at Chicago O'Hare International Airport; "Art Chronicles," the photographic series based on the construction of Denver International Airport; and San Diego International Airport's Ready, Pet, Go Program, a team of therapy dogs that provide stress relief and comfort to passengers.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
Many airports have upped their culinary offerings. Some terminals have exemplary restaurants that are worth arriving early for, like seafood restaurant Obrycki's at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Japanese at One Flew South at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. If you have a layover, the city's best local eats may just be a few gates away, offering you a chance to try signature dishes like Texas barbecue at The Salt Lick BBQ at Austin-Bergstorm International Airport and at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport without leaving the airport.
Splurge on an Upgrade
Let's face it. It seems like all of humanity is traveling over the holidays. Escape the chaos in the comfort of an airport lounge. Stays in airport lounges are often thrown in for free for travelers traveling in Business and First Class on international flights, but domestic flyers can also enjoy them. Other ways to gain entry: Buy a day pass or an airport lounge membership, or swap miles for a pass. If you want to be first on the plane and not jostle for overhead bin space, consider upgrading your seat, be a loyal frequent flier to gain status, or check with the airline to see which zones or rows are boarding first and request a seat in those rows or zones.
Fly the Friendlier Skies
While most airlines have done away with free amenities, there are still a few domestic carriers that do offer free snacks. Even in coach, there are exceptional culinary offerings (example: LATAM offers restaurant-style dining).
Get your vacation started as quickly as possible with this must-do checklist: don't check your luggage, sit up front to get off the plane first, check out the airport terminal to map your arrival route, and, if you're traveling internationally, consider signing up for Global Entry for international travel, NEXUS for travel between the U.S. and Canada, or SENTRI for travel by land from Mexico to the U.S., which are Trusted Traveler Programs run by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol that help expedite travel across borders. Don't forget to schedule an airport pickup from friends or family, a rental car shuttle bus, or a shuttle from your hotel. And if you're traveling with your best (hairy) friend, check out which cities will be the most pet-friendly.
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