Traveling during the holidays is an expensive nightmare. So why do people even bother? Most would say they brave it to see family or escape the cold, but for me, if I decide to venture into the chaos, it's because I'm out of vacation days. Not joking. I put up with insane security lines, overbooked flights, weather delays, cancellations, and overall airport madness just to spend a couple of extra days in some random corner of the world.
No matter what you're reasoning, if you're looking to get away for the holidays, but don't own a private jet, here are some survival tips:
Look for Direct Flights or Flights Departing in the Morning
Of course a direct flight is the best way to stay sane and avoid sleeping in an airport, but if you need a connecting flight to get to where you're going, fly out as early as possible. Flights are often delayed and/or overbooked during the holidays. Not every delay means a missed connection, but an earlier flight gives you more alternative flight options just in case something goes wrong.
Apply for TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, or CLEAR
If you want to avoid those crazy holiday lines going through security, sign up for a program that helps you skip the queue. There are fees involved with all, but it will help keep you sane and on schedule during the holiday season.
Option 1: TSA PreCheck
TSA PreCheck allows you to skip the line and extensive security measures. All you'll have to do is walk through a metal detector and nothing comes out of your bag or off of your body. Granted, so many people have PreCheck now that there might be a small line. It will never be as crazy as the main line, but don't assume that you'll never have to wait.
Applying for TSA PreCheck can easily be done at tsa.gov. It costs $85 and lasts for 5 years.
Option 2: Global Entry
If you're traveling out of the country, Global Entry gives you the same benefits of PreCheck and you get access to fast-track lanes at U.S. customs for a $100 fee.
The downside is the wait. Global entry requires an interview which may take months to get due to the large number of applicants.
Option 3: CLEAR
Instead of waiting for an officer to review your documents, CLEAR verifies your identity at a kiosk using eye and fingerprint scanners. Once the quick verification is done, you can shoot straight to the body scanners and metal detectors. However, unlike PreCheck, you'll have to remove and scan liquids, electronics, shoes, etc.
Since CLEAR is still relatively new, they often have free trials available. If not, the program will set you back about $50.
Check with your airport to see what expedited entry methods they have available. And be cautious of airlines that make you pay them an additional fee in order to use TSA PreCheck.
Carry-On Luggage Only
Try to only bring a carry-on and a personal item. This not only cuts down on baggage fees, but it saves you a tremendous amount of time at the luggage carousel after your flight.
A carry-on also ensures a smoother transition if you take an alternative flight. There's no stress at the airport about getting your baggage switched to your new flight or stowed at your destination until you arrive. The last thing you need after a stressful day of holiday travel is your luggage going missing.
If you need to check a bag, see if your airline offers quick drop at the curb so you can avoid the long lines. If not, use a skycap. It's a $2 tip per suitcase to drop your bag off with a porter at the curb.
You can throw a tracker in your bag if you're nervous about losing your luggage in the chaos. You'll be able to follow it on your phone just in case anything goes wrong.
(Please note that TSA may unwrap any presents that are stored in your checked suitcases.)
If you find yourself stuck at an airport for an extended period of time, look into purchasing a day pass from an airline lounge. For about $50, you can have access to endless food, drinks, WiFi, and outlets. And if you're looking to get some sleep, they usually have comfortable, private locations to rest your head.
You don't need a first class ticket to take advantage of the lounge, but you will need to go to the same airline that you're booked with. Prices per airline lounge vary. Check with lounge at the airport.
Bring an External Charger
Outlets are a rare thing in any airport. Make sure you pack an external charger for your phone or tablet so you're not fighting over sockets in the airport. They are also great to have during flights and full day excursions.
Snacks on Snacks
Bring snacks if you want to avoid expensive airport food and long queues at restaurants. Security only cares about liquids. You can bring in pretty much any food you want. It doesn't just have to be Cheez-Its and apples. I once brought in a gyro and half a pizza. You think I'm kidding.
If you prefer liquid snacks, put together a little carry-on cocktail kit to help ease the madness.
Sign Up For Flight Alerts
My Google phone automatically does this for me, but if your phone doesn't, download an app like FlightTrack, FlightAware, or FlightStats to get alerts sent to your phone. Often times you'll get an alert for a gate change, delay, or cancellation before your carrier even announces it.
Delays & Cancellations
If your flight is delayed over 2 hours, or you know you're going to miss your connection, head over to the airline customer service desk and ask them for food vouchers, airline credit, and/or a new second leg. Sometimes they'll even give you a full refund.
If your flight is cancelled, call the airline while you're waiting in line. You'll be able to get your flight rescheduled a lot quicker. If the airline says, "Sorry, we have no other flights out today," then talk to a rep at the desk to book you on another airline.
If your flight is overbooked and you don't mind waiting, volunteer to stay behind for the next one. It's amazing how much money they will give volunteers during the holidays. I once got $500 Delta dollars for waiting 2.5 hours for the next flight out.
Avoid Getting Bumped
Airlines typically go with a last in, first out rule, so the earlier you check in, the less likely you'll be bumped from an overbooked flight. You also have a better chance of getting on your flight if you're a part of the airline's loyalty program. Most programs are free, so take full advantage of it. And if you're a loyalty member and have a credit card with the airline, it not only guarantees you a seat on your requested flight, but a potential upgrade to business/first class when they overbook coach.
When I first started traveling many moons ago, I just assumed that all airports had free WiFi. Ha. I was so young and naive. I learned my lesson after I got stuck in an airport overnight in Switzerland with no internet and no way to pass the time. Now I make sure I have plenty of movies, TV shows, and audiobooks downloaded on Netflix, Amazon, and Audible before I leave. I'll do the same when I'm traveling with other people, but I'll also stash a deck of cards in my bag to help us kill time together.
Cover Your Arse (Trip Insurance)
Last, but not least, consider getting trip insurance to cover cancellations, interruptions, medical issues, baggage loss, and more. Different plans cover different things. Just make sure you do your research. Most plans will cover things like car rentals in case a flight only gets you so far and you have to drive the rest of the way.
Holiday travel is totally unpredictable. One way might be smooth sailing, and the other might be a complete sh*tshow. There's no way to know. Just keep an eye out on the weather, track your flights, and prepare for the worst. If you end up spending 5 hours at a bar during a layover, no one is going to judge you.