The Ultimate Guide to Flying During the Holidays


Flying during the holidays is never fun. Between delayed flights, cranky travelers, and long security lines, it often seems easier to just stay home. Thankfully there are a few things you can do to better navigate the process so that you still show up to our destination ready and able to celebrate. (See also: How to Save Money on Holiday Travel)

Choose Your Flights Wisely

The first step to lower stress when flying during the holidays is to choose the best flights for your situation.

1. Try for Nonstop

Nonstop flights are typically more expensive than flights with a layover. But, the time, stress, and headaches you'll save is well worth any extra money you'll pay for the nonstop flight. I have been stuck at Chicago O'Hare the day before Thanksgiving for nearly eight hours (extremely close to renting a car for the seven hour drive to Minneapolis) because I didn't buy a nonstop flight home for the short holiday weekend. On one Christmas day, my family's first flight was delayed two hours due to weather, and we spent Christmas night eating frozen mac and cheese in a crappy airport hotel because of the missed connection. (See also: The Best Travel Reward Credit Cards)

2. If Nonstop Is Out, Choose Connecting Cities Carefully

If you live in the northern part of North America, you are well aware that the holidays occur when it's cold and likely to snow. I always opt for southern connections if I can't fly direct. (Think Atlanta or Dallas over Denver or Chicago, as it's far less likely to snow there).

3. Book the First Flight Out

Inevitably there will be a snowstorm somewhere during the holidays. This means that flight schedules get snarled. Even if you're not flying to a snowy destination, your plane may be coming from the blizzard-swept city and delayed by the weather. If you can take the first flight out in the morning (as annoying it is to be at the airport at 4:30 a.m.), you are much more likely to a have a shorter security line and have an on-time departure. That's because you're flying out on a plane that probably arrived the night before.

4. Avoid Day-Before or Weekend Travel

Traveling the Monday before Thanksgiving is going to be much less hassle than the Wednesday before, since most people fly on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. And with Christmas on a Wednesday in 2013. the Monday before is probably also a good day to fly. (Folks who are taking the full week off will head out on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. And folks who can't take a full week off will be flying on Tuesday, Christmas Eve. So Monday is probably your best bet this year.)

Pack Like a Pro

Packing right makes for easier travel because you'll have less hassle with security, lost luggage, or fighting for overhead space.

1. One Carry-On Bag Only

The more stuff you bring, the less flexible you are. Besides the expense of checked bags on almost every airline (Southwest Airlines is the primary exception), checking a bag also means that you you could have problems if your flight is cancelled or delayed or you miss a connection. If you carry on a bag, you can much more easily switch flights if needed. I'm currently testing out some Eagle Creek luggage, like the Tarmac 22, that has great pockets for easy one-bag packing. So pack your favorite rollerboard only and ditch the large duffels or oversized suitcases for this season's holiday travel. (See also: How to Avoid Carry-on Luggage Charges)

2. Be Willing to Check

If you are only bringing one bag and are flying nonstop, be willing to check your bag if given the option to do so for free (either through your status, a credit card with free bag check, or sometimes at check in or the gate). You'll not only save the stress of getting through security with a bag, you also won't have to rush to board just to fight for overhead bin space.

3. Consider Your Gift Options

If your holidays include gift giving, you are going to have a more difficult time fitting all your clothes and gifts into one bag. There are two good workarounds for this. You can purchase online and ship to the destination you're headed. We do this every year when we visit my in-laws. It is not only easier on us, but if they don't like something and want to return it, all the return labels are already in the place they need to be. Or another option is to opt for smaller gifts — like gift cards or small electronic gadgets. If you do have to carry something with you, wait to wrap it until you're at your destination. It's rare that TSA has to unwrap presents, but you don't want it to happen to you.

The Big Day: Managing the Craziness

The day of the holiday flight has arrived. How do you cope? These tips will make the trip itself much easier.

1. Make a Checklist

Here's one to get you started. After you've found your slip-on shoes, stowed your gadgets in your carry-on, printed out your boarding passes, review your packing list, travel plans, and everything else before you head out.

2. Plan Your Ground Transport in Advance

If you are planning on driving to the airport, check your local airport's parking capacity. Most airports will tell you on their websites whether or not certain parking garages are already full. If you have to park further away, you'll want to give yourself more time to get from the parking lot to the gate.

3. Give Yourself Extra Time for Security

You never know how busy TSA will be during the holidays. Sometimes it's painless, and sometimes you're waiting for 45 minutes. Plan for extra time, and if it's faster, you'll have more time to read a book (or grab a drink) before the flight. Quick tip: Choose the security line with only one agent at the screen. That's the one that will move the fastest.

4. Pack Snacks and Entertainment

People are always crankier (especially kids) when they are hungry and or bored. Pack more snacks and more entertainment than you need and you'll ensure that everyone is content if there are delays. If you're carrying that entertainment on your laptop, stow it in a TSA friendly laptop bag. (See also: Airplane Snacks for Frequent Fliers)

5. Be Above It All and Remember It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

People get cranky during holiday travel. Don't be one of them. Instead, rise above it and remember that ultimately you will get to your destination (even if it's not the exact moment you planned). You will get treated better if you put on a smiling face, too.

Embrace the craziness for what it is — just don't become a part of it, and you'll have the most successful flights this holiday season.

What's your best advice for getting through holiday travel?

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