Holiday travel can be challenging, if not downright maddening.
Whether it's Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s, the same challenges apply: Crowds as far as the eye can see, high prices on everything from food to airline tickets, and bad weather threatening to put a giant wrinkle in your holiday agenda.
There’s no foolproof hack to fix weather, but travelers can employ tactics this time of year to make the process as painless as possible. Experts shared their best tips for beating holiday season travel challenges.
1. Getting to the airport early isn’t good enough anymore
Arriving at the airport well in advance of your departure helps minimize the pitfalls of long security lines or missed flights, but you can make the experience even easier with help from “known traveler” programs and apps, said Calvin Iverson of TravelPirates.
“If you haven’t already, apply for TSA Precheck or Global Entry,” said Iverson. “These known traveler programs allow you to race through the airport in half the time it takes without them. Plus, you’re far less likely to get pulled aside for random screening.”
If you’re traveling internationally and don’t want to spend money on known traveler applications, download Mobile Passport before returning to the U.S., said Iverson. The free app allows travelers to submit passport information and customs declaration forms to U.S. Customs and Border Protection via smartphone or tablet and go through inspection using an expedited line.
2. Avoid inflated holiday prices
Not all of us are organized enough to buy holiday airline tickets months in advance, when prices are cheaper.
All is not lost. Hipmunk’s data show you can avoid last-minute price hikes on Christmas travel by flying on the holiday. In fact, the site’s data reveal it’s possible to save 20% by flying on Christmas Day.
One additional tip courtesy of Hipmunk: The most expensive day to travel is the Friday before Christmas, which falls this year on Dec. 21.
3. Seat selection secrets
Airlines often start to upgrade their elite fliers three or four days prior to a flight, which means seat options start popping up in coach that weren’t available when you booked your ticket, said Gabe Saglie, editor for Travelzoo.
“Avoid purchasing a seat when booking your ticket to avoid paying more and instead scope out the seat map a couple days before your flight as airlines often open up available seating that may have been blocked before,” said Saglie.
4. Direct flights
During the holidays, when weather is likely to be bad, book a direct flight. It will pay off in multiple ways.
“Flights with one or multiple stops may be priced cheaper and seem more enticing, but during the holidays extra crowds and predictable weather make connecting flights more of a gamble, increasing the odds that you’ll be stuck in an airport far from your destination and will end up spending the money you could have on necessities, or your bags will be lost,” said Saglie. (Travel insurance can help protect travelers against financial losses. Compare prices for travelers insurance here.)
If you must book a connecting flight, opt for one routed through airports in the south, as they tend to be less prone to delays during the holiday season. (Learn which airports experience the most delays.)
5. Apps that can save you a headache
Travel technology is an exploding space. Do yourself a favor and use of some of this tech during the holidays.
Hipmunk recommends TripIt to help avoid the stress of missed flights. The TripIt app tells users when to leave for the airport based on their location, flight status and real-time traffic conditions, and provides details about security wait times at the airport.
LoungeBuddy allows travelers to access any of the lounges in its network for as little as $25. No memberships, elite status or first-class tickets needed.
“You’ll have comfy couches, more outlets for your electronics, food and alcoholic beverages and depending on the lounge, you can find even better perks. I’ve taken a shower at an airport lounge,” Iverson said. “It’s the perfect perk when your red-eye lands early in the morning and you’re going straight from the airport to your in-law’s place.”
Check out everything you need to know about policies, fees and savings tips with your preferred airline in this airline-by-airline guide.
How do you deal with holiday travel? Tell us in the comments.