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Good to Know: Best and Worst Days for Holiday Travel

According to Airlines for America, the trade group representing the interests of most U.S. airlines, this holiday travel season extends over a full 21 days, from December 16, 2016, through January 5, 2017. That’s a long time to endure the indignities and discomfort of crowded airports and overstuffed planes.

A4A expects U.S. carriers to transport 45.2 million flyers over the holiday period, a 3.5 percent increase over last year. Ever the industry cheerleader, A4A reassures travelers that the airlines are up to the task:

As we saw over Thanksgiving, U.S. airlines are well positioned to handle the increase in passengers expected this holiday season. Airlines’ concerted and well-coordinated efforts over Thanksgiving helped ensure the traditional holiday rush was as smooth as could be for fliers, resulting in shorter security wait times and noticeable higher on-time performance rates. We expect to see much of the same this winter holiday travel season.

The better news is that one of the two busiest days is already behind us: December 22. And the other busiest day is today, December 23. So, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not on the road today.

The least busy days, which makes them the best travel days, are December 24, 25, and 31, and January 1. That confirms what savvy flyers have long known, that traveling on the holiday—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s day—can be a downright pleasant experience, with notably sparser crowds and a more relaxed and festive atmosphere both on the ground and in the air.

The traffic flows vary somewhat among airports. The busiest days at five of the largest airports:

  • Atlanta – December 23, 30; January 2, 5
  • Chicago O’Hare – December 23, 27, 28, 30
  • Los Angeles – December 23; January 2, 3
  • Dallas/Ft. Worth – December 22, 29, 30; January 2
  • New York/JFK – December 22, 23, 24; January 1, 2

Holiday Travel Tips

On the busier days, planes will be running close to 100 percent full, especially on more popular routes. And security screening at the busiest airports will be stressed to the breaking point. Travelers for whom comfort is a priority will want to avoid flying on those days, if possible. If you don’t have the luxury of contrarian timing, however, do what you can to eke as much comfort and peace from the flight experience as you can. Some tactics that have proven themselves over the years:

  • Allow plenty of time to get to the airport, especially if you plan to park at an airport lot
  • Book early flights to increase the odds of being accommodated later the same day in the event of a cancellation
  • Travel to/from secondary airports
  • Avoid checking bags if possible
  • To avoid the coach crush, use miles to upgrade or pay extra for premium economy
  • Have phone numbers for your airline, hotel, rental car readily at hand
  • Fully charge your smartphone before leaving home
  • For a respite from the gate crowd, consider buying a day pass to the airline’s airport lounge
  • Sign up for PreCheck for expedited security clearance

None of the above will make holiday flying a breeze. So relax. Expect travel to be stressful. Observe the Golden Rule, and hope that other travelers do the same.

Reader Reality Check

What’s your strategy for surviving the holiday travel crunch?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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