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Piazza Venezia square and the Altare della Patria monument, with Christmas decorations
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10 Holiday Travel Tips You Need to Know

SmarterTravel

Planning to visit Grandma’s for Thanksgiving or spend Christmas in Rome? Holiday travel can be notoriously busy, expensive, and stressful, but the news isn’t all bad. There are still deals to be found, provided you shop carefully and plan ahead. Check out these 10 holiday travel tips and find some joy this holiday season.

Avoid Peak Travel Dates

crowd of passengers in the departure hall airport
Leon T/Shutterstock

At Thanksgiving, Wednesday is the critical outbound “avoid” day as a rule. Traveling on Thanksgiving Day is often a breeze and more affordable, and if you can fly home any day other than Sunday, you’ll likely pay less.

At Christmas and New Year’s, the peak holiday travel dates change each year depending on which days the holidays fall. You can generally guess which dates will be the most expensive for travel (consider which travel days would allow you to maximize long weekends without taking too many days off work — and that’s probably when everyone will want to go). For more information, see The 12 Best and Worst Days for Holiday Travel This Year.

Shop Around

Whether you’re using booking sites like Expedia or metasearch sites such as Skyscanner, comparison shopping has never been easier than it is right now. During holiday travel season, casting a wide net will help you understand all your options. Be as flexible as possible with dates and airports in order to get the best fares and schedule. Keep in mind that flying into or out of a smaller airport can make a big difference in your holiday travel experience, since smaller airports tend to have smaller crowds and shorter lines.

Plot Connections Carefully

When booking flights, check your search results carefully for sufficient time during layovers, and build in some time for flight delays and weather woes. Particularly during the winter months, peak travel times often bring travel delays, and your connections are more likely to be jeopardized. Avoiding tight connections might save you a sprint through the terminal or, worse yet, a missed flight.

Also, it’s best if you can muscle your flight path into position so that connections are in places less likely to experience delays—specifically, airports in warmer climates. For more advice, see 18 Winter Travel Tips for Flights and Road Trips.

Better yet, book a nonstop flight and avoid the issue altogether.

Leave Early

During peak travel times, much of the trouble you’ll face lies on this side of the security check-in, from traffic jams and full parking lots to absent shuttles and long lines. Rather than striving to “arrive at the airport early,” you may want to try to “leave for the airport early” to anticipate all the peripheral delays you may encounter.

Many flights are completely full around the holidays, so if you miss your scheduled flight due to a flat tire or unexpected traffic, it may not be easy to get on another flight in a reasonable amount of time.

Most airlines recommend checking in 90 minutes early for domestic flights and two hours early for international flights. For holiday travel, however, it’s wise to arrive even earlier. Expect to encounter long lines at check-in and security, and plan accordingly. To save yourself time, put gas in your car the night before.

Pack Wisely

Has it been a while since you last flew? If so, you’ll want to make sure you’re familiar with the latest TSA rules regarding what’s allowed in carry-on bags. See Airport Security Frequently Asked Questions for a primer. Remember that the TSA’s liquid and gel restrictions apply to items like holiday leftovers (think mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce) and to gifts such as wine or body lotion; prepare to put these in your checked bag.

When packing, keep in mind that most airlines charge travelers a fee for checking any bags on domestic flights (and even some international ones), and that some bargain-basement fares don’t include a carry-on bag either. Check your airline’s baggage rules in advance so you know what to expect, and read How to Pack Light Every Time to help you trim your luggage load.

Plan Ahead for Parking

Don’t assume that you’ll be able to pull right into your airport’s economy lot and find a space the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas. Airport parking lots may be vast, but they do fill up during peak travel times. Consider alternatives to driving yourself such as taking public transportation, booking a shuttle, calling a cab or rideshare, or having someone drop you off.

If those options don’t work, reserve a parking spot in advance through websites such as AirportParkingReservations.com or ParkRideFly.

Take Advantage of Shortcuts

Person going through tsa precheck line
Joni Hanebutt/Shutterstock

The latest self-service developments in online travel can be tremendous time-savers during peak travel times. Whenever possible, print your boarding passes at home or pull them up on your smartphone. Consider applying for trusted traveler programs such as Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, which allow you to skip the normal security lines.

If you buy most of your gifts online, have them shipped directly to your destination. This will cut down on luggage and the risk of them getting lost. (If you do decide to pack your gifts, don’t wrap them; TSA agents will rip them open if they need to screen them for any reason.)

Travel Early in the Day

As a rule, airports are least congested at times when normal human beings would rather be at home or even asleep. Delays are far less likely for morning flights, and if you do encounter an issue with your originally scheduled itinerary, you’ll have options later in the day.

Caveat: Staffing can be spotty for really early flights, so although your flight is highly likely to be ready to leave on time, check-in may take a while, as may other personnel-dependent steps like riding shuttle buses.

Bring Some Creature Comforts

woman using traveling pillow and sleeping mask in plane
FotoHelin/Shutterstock

As if cramped legroom, narrow seats, and crying babies weren’t enough to guarantee an uncomfortable journey, some airlines are now taking away the free blankets that were the only thing standing between passengers and hypothermia. Stay warm on a chilly holiday flight by packing your own cozy pashmina, fleece, or travel blanket.

For longer flights, consider bringing items such as earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, and an eye mask to help you sleep. And don’t miss SmarterTravel’s list of engrossing airplane books to keep you entertained.

Keep Your Cool

Don’t lose your temper, even if things go wrong. Airline employees have considerable power over your well-being. Unfortunately, some enjoy wielding it against you, and few respond well to anger.

Remember that everyone is harried, and have a little extra patience. The crowds, the weather, and the stress of the holiday season guarantee that a good 90 percent of the people you interact with on your journey are just as frazzled as you are.

A Few Bonus Holiday Travel Tips

Check ahead for delays before you leave for the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration has a map showing general delay status at major airports across the U.S. so you can see if trouble might be lurking, even if your scheduled flight is still on time.

Have phone numbers for everything: your hotel, your car rental agency, your airline, friends at your destination.

Give your cell phone a full charge, and download your airline’s app so you’ll get alerts if your flight is delayed or your gate changes.

If you’re leaving pets at home and you haven’t made kennel reservations, do so right away. If Fluffy is coming along, check out Traveling with Pets.

Put It All Together

Holiday travel is the time to lay all your travel savvy on the line. For example, if you:

  • have your boarding pass sent to your phone
  • leave early enough not to sweat the small stuff
  • travel light enough not to have to check any bags
  • proceed directly to and through security
  • arrive at the gate on time and at ease
  • and nail your connections …

… you might actually enjoy traveling this season!

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Christine Sarkis and Jessica Labrencis contributed to this story.

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