6 Tips for Surviving Busy Airports This Holiday Season

by  Kaeli Conforti | Nov 22, 2023
iStock/Anna Stills

Each holiday season, millions of Americans flock to airports around the U.S. to set off on their long-awaited getaways, whether to spend time with loved ones or treat themselves to a well-deserved vacation by the beach. Sometimes, these trips go off without a hitch, while other times, travelers are faced with backed-up security lines and the stress of having carefully laid plans booked and rebooked due to weather-related delays and cancellations. 

While it might feel frustrating when these things happen, there are a few things you can do to at least ease the stress of busy airports this holiday season. And whatever happens, remember that the people behind the counter are not the enemy — they’re only human and making the best of a trying situation, too.

Save Time and Money by Being Strategic about Your Travel Dates

If your schedule is flexible, flying a few days before and after the busiest travel days will definitely save you some sanity, and likely some money. Booking the earliest possible flight so you’re out first thing in the morning can also help you avoid delays that may occur later in the day, especially if planes get backed up due to weather (also be on the lookout for winter storm waivers, which let you make changes to your itinerary for free). 

Try to fly nonstop so you don’t have to worry about delays or cancellations on connecting flights, and arrive at least two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights. It's also a good idea to download your airline’s app to stay on top of schedule changes. If you need to leave your car at the airport, book your parking spot as early as possible, as they can fill up quickly.

Cut Down on Lines

Depending on where you’re going, it might be worth investing in a service like CLEAR Plus, TSA PreCheck, or Global Entry to cut your time in busy security lines. Make sure to check whether your preferred credit card offers credits toward membership or complimentary access to any of these before purchasing.

CLEAR Plus ($189 per year, discounts available via certain credit cards) uses biometrics like fingerprints and eye scans to let you skip the part of the line where you show the TSA agent your photo I.D. TSA PreCheck ($78 for five years) provides access to a separate security line, and lets you keep your shoes on and laptop in your bag. For international trips, Global Entry can help you fly through customs on your way back into the U.S. ($100 for five years). Note that purchasing a Global Entry membership also gives you access to TSA PreCheck, making it a great option for frequent flyers.

iStock/Sebastiano Secondi

Know What You Can — and Can't — Pack 

Make sure you’re following the TSA rules for liquids in your carry-on and for packing holiday-related items like snowglobes — as long as they’re also under 3.4 ounces and fit in a one-quart clear plastic bag, you’re good to go. Holiday cookies and cakes should be carried in a separate container in case they require further inspection, and any presents you’re bringing in your checked bag or carry-on luggage should not be wrapped, as a TSA agent may need to unwrap them if anything is flagged during a security scan.

See If You Can Score Lounge Access

Find out if your current credit cards offer lounge access — or a free Priority Pass membership, which allows entry to certain lounges — as this will make your time spent at the airport considerably more comfortable. While all of them offer complimentary food and beverages, space to unwind while you wait, and free Wi-Fi, some airport lounges also have extra perks like shower rooms, nap spaces, family play areas, or outdoor terraces. Entry rules vary by location, which class you’re flying in, and the credit card you have, though some also allow you to purchase day passes.

Many airlines have their own spaces for business- and first-class customers, and lounges for certain premium-level credit card holders are also available at certain airports. Check to see if the one you’re flying from has a Centurion Lounge, a Capital One Lounge, or a Chase Sapphire Lounge by The Club, and if you have a card that’ll get you in.


Know Your Passenger Rights

It never hurts to be prepared, especially when a delay becomes a cancellation. Know your passenger rights regarding compensation so you can make a claim for a refund or request accommodation or compensation, depending on the situation. To make matters even more complicated, each airline has its own rules for such events, though they’ll generally just make sure you’re rebooked on the next flight at no additional cost. In a pinch, ask your original airline to see if a seat is available with another carrier.

Generally, however, know that in the case of a cancelled flight you’re eligible for a refund, not just vouchers for future travel. And if you do accept a voucher, make sure to ask about blackout dates and other possible restrictions. Compensation on domestic trips is required by law when you’re bumped from an oversold  flight, though not a weather-related delay.

Plan for Delays and Cancellations

Follow your favorite airlines on social media so you can reach out to them via direct message as soon as something goes wrong. While you’re waiting in line for the customer service desk, do what you can online through the airline’s website, via direct message, or by calling the airline, as you may be able to get things taken care of even faster by using one of those methods.

Make sure you’re carrying something to keep you entertained if you get stuck with a long delay. Charge your iPad, phone, laptop, and other go-to devices, bring that book you’ve been meaning to read and download all your e-books, movies, TV shows, and music before you go. Bring a reusable water bottle and some snacks to munch on, too, as buying those at the airport can cost a small fortune.

Keep a list of backup flights and airport hotels handy in case your plans change drastically and you need to rebook your flight or spend the night near the airport (though accommodations are sometimes offered by the airline, so ask them first). Even better, see if any points hotels — through Marriott Bonvoy, IHG One Rewards, Hilton Honors, or World of Hyatt — are available so you can use loyalty program points to stay for free.

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