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How to Avoid the 4 Worst Parts of Holiday Flights

Holiday flights: if simply uttering the term makes your blood pressure rise, you’re not alone. Holiday air travel is, in the mildest terms, a challenge. The crowds, the high prices, and the weather combine to create a less-than-optimal travel landscape.

How to Avoid the Worst Things About Holiday Flights

By harnessing these tips, you can significantly reduce the stress and hassle of holiday flights.

Crowds

The days leading up to and following winter holidays are among the busiest of the year. Whether you’re waiting at security, for the bathroom, or to board the plane, you’re likely to find a long, slow-moving line.

Advance planning and flexibility will be your best allies in the fight against holiday crowd fatigue. If you can, book your travel for one of the less busy holiday air travel days. For Thanksgiving flights, that may mean traveling on Thanksgiving—or the day after. For Christmas flights and travel during New Year’s, try to avoid December 22 through 24, December 29, and January 2. This will help you escape the worst of the crowds as well as the highest prices (more on that below).

If you can’t avoid the busiest days for your holiday flights, go into the experience with a deep personal well of patience. There will be waits (though if you have Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, you can skip the worst of the security backup), but it’s a shared frustration, and remembering that you’re all in this together can help you reframe that irritation.

High Prices

Want to pay less—or at least not pay the most—for your holiday flight? Then concentrate on two things: when you book and when you fly. Unlike other times of year, when you can sometimes score a cheaper flight by waiting until the last minute to book, holiday flights tend to get more expensive the closer you are to the travel date. This year, you should plan to book by the end of October for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s travel.

The real trick to finding more affordable holiday airfare, though, is to travel on lower-demand travel days. Booking off-peak days can yield fares up to three times less than peak holiday travel dates. For Thanksgiving flights, avoid the days leading up to the holiday and the weekend after, and instead opt to travel on Thanksgiving or Black Friday. For Christmas flights and New Year’s travel, the trick this year will be to avoid December 22 through 24, December 29, and January 2.

Delays

The best-case scenario is to take direct, nonstop holiday flights both to and from your destination. Adding connecting flights seriously ups your chance of delays and cancellations. At a time of year when you must factor in packed flights and potentially bad weather, you want to minimize the number of legs to any journey.

If you just can’t get around multiple flight legs, try to connect through airports less likely to be impacted by winter storms. Instead of connecting through Denver, for instance, opt for Houston. You can’t predict the weather, and even at airports with decent weather you may be impacted by delays at other airports, but you can at least try to steer clear of blizzards. And to minimize your chance of delays, book early-morning flights, before the airline and the airport have had much time to compound delays.

Illness

Being in close quarters—in the security line, waiting to board, and in the confined space of the airplane cabin—exposes you to the germs of your fellow passengers. No one wants to bring the gift of illness home for the holidays, so it’s worth taking extra steps to try to avoid germs while traveling.

Before you travel, make sure to get enough sleep and stay hydrated to keep your immune system strong. If you’re not trying to score overhead bin space, consider waiting until there’s no line before boarding the plane to minimize exposure to ill passengers. When you do find your seat, wipe down the armrests, tray table (including the latch), and any touchscreens with a sanitizing wipe. Consider not sitting on the aisle, since that exposes you to more of your fellow passengers’ germs. Keep your air vent open and blowing air slightly in front of your face. And of course, wash your hands with warm water and soap every chance you get.

Bonus: Know Your Rights

From compensation in the event of flight cancellations to food and bathroom access if you find yourself waiting out a tarmac delay, you have rights as an airline passenger. Airline personnel aren’t always forthcoming about your rights, though, so it’s up to you to know what to expect—and ask for. Download and print SmarterTravel’s Air-Passenger Rights fold-up card and pop it in your travel wallet. You’ll be prepared and informed if your holiday flights don’t go exactly as planned.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Christine on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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