How to Navigate the Airport Like a Pro During the Holidays The airport game is different during the holiday travel season. The tips and tricks you usually employ over the course of the year may not work so well between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, don't be the turkey who misses his flight or holds up security. Be the pro who navigates the crowded airport with skill and grace instead. Here's how to do it.
Allow Extra Time for Traffic and Security
It almost goes without saying, but it seems like every year it needs to be said again: Get to the airport early during the holidays. The rule of thumb is two hours early for a domestic flight and three hours for an international departure.
What might have been enough time to have you sitting pretty at 35,000 feet on a random weekday in March isn't going to cut it during the holidays. Traffic, and especially traffic to the airport, will be heavy and slow. According to AAA, Thanksgiving traffic is at its hairiest on the Wednesday before and the Sunday after the holiday.
And, of course, the security lines don't exactly get shorter during the holiday season. Check the TSA's website for up-to-the-minute line wait times at your departure terminal.
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Pack Sensory-Blocking Amenities
Nothing's more conducive to fighting off the stressors of holiday travel than some shuteye. Unfortunately, sleeping on the plane is easier said than done. That's where sensory-deprivation therapy comes in. Stock up on earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, an eye mask, and a neck pillow to ease yourself into a restful state.
Two of our favorite sensory-blocking products available today are the all-in-one BauBax jacket, which comes with loads of built-in travel amenities like a neck pillow, eye mask, and even a pen; and the 1 Voice Sleep Headphones Eye Mask. (We can't quite bring ourselves to recommend the Ostrich Pillow, but it sure looks like it would be effective, too.)
Skip the Security Line
The TSA's expedited security program, PreCheck, costs just $85 for a five-year membership and grants you an exponentially shorter screening time—something that's especially appealing during the holidays. What's more, you can even leave your shoes, belt, and light coats on, and keep your laptop and 3-1-1-compliant liquids in their bags.
If you'll be traveling internationally over the holidays, consider joining the Global Entry program. There's a one-time $100 application fee, but once you're enrolled you will have access to both the TSA PreCheck lines and a smaller line at customs when you return to the U.S. from another country.
Before enrolling, verify that your airport and airline use the programs, and find out if any of your credit cards will reimburse you for the programs' enrollment fees.
Check in 24 Hours Before Your Flight
There's the obvious reason for checking in online before you arrive at the airport—namely, that you can walk right by the check-in counter and boarding-pass kiosks and head straight for the security line. But during the holidays, checking in 24 hours before your flight reduces the risk that you'll be involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight. (A very real scenario during peak holiday travel.)
And if you're flying Southwest, checking in 24 hours before your scheduled departure takes on added importance.
Download Your Boarding Pass
Checking in for your flight is useless if you can't show your boarding pass. Verify that your ticket displays on your phone or tablet even when you're offline.
To be extra safe, place your boarding pass into an itinerary-tracking app like TripIt or TripCase, iPhone's Passbook, or simply take a picture of it—just don't post the picture on social media.
Don't Check a Bag
Avoid checking your bags at costs, and not just because every airline except Southwest charges for them. In past years, airlines mishandled bags at nearly double the normal rate over the holidays due to an increase in travelers. Don't expect this year to be any different.
Avoid a potential headache (and save a few bucks) by traveling with just one carry-on bag and a personal item like a purse or small backpack. Order any gifts you may be handing out this year online and have them shipped to your holiday destination rather than bringing them on your flight.
Know Which Airports to Avoid
The busiest and most delay-prone U.S. airports over the holidays are Los Angeles, Chicago (O'Hare), San Francisco, Denver, Boston, New York (JFK), Orlando, Newark, Dallas, and Atlanta. Sometimes it's impossible to avoid these airports, but whenever you have a choice, opt for the alternative.
RELATED: 8 Worst Airports for Holiday Flights
Pack an Extra Charger
Few things induce more panic than standing in an interminable security line for a soon-to-depart flight while your phone's battery life slowly depletes (especially if your boarding pass is saved on your phone). Do yourself a favor and pack a fully charged portable phone charger.
If your itinerary includes a layover, download an airport-map app like airport GateGuru to help you pass the time wisely. Not only does GateGuru show you the gate locations around the airport, it also displays the locations of important terminal amenities like restaurants, restrooms, and shops.
Book Airport Parking
It's fine for an hour or two, but long-term parking at the airport costs a pretty penny. If driving to the airport is the best way for you to arrive, consider checking prices from an off-airport parking provider like Park 'N Fly or AirportParkingReservations.com.
You can also get "free" parking at airport-area accommodations ("park, sleep, fly" packages), such as those available from BuyReservations.com, ParkSleepFly, and Stay123.com. All of these services shuttle customers between their cars and the airport—an especially helpful feature during high-traffic times like the holidays.
More from SmarterTravel:
- How to Survive the Middle Seat
- Pro Tips for Flying in Comfort
- The 15 Items You Need to Survive a Long-Haul Flight
(Photo: Warsaw Frederic Chopin terminal via Shutterstock)