As a travel tech entrepreneur and co-founder of PlacePass.com, I’m on the road all the time and consider myself pretty savvy when it comes to navigating busy airports. But undoubtedly, I find my patience wearing thin every holiday travel season. To put it candidly: A few minutes after setting foot in the airport, I turn into a full-on Grinch.
I know I’m not the only one. Holiday travel is trying, thanks to crowded terminals, fickle weather, and beloved yet pesky family members who are running late/forgot something at home/need to go to the bathroom for the thousandth time.
Over time, I’ve developed a few strategies to keep myself sane at the airport and ensure that any snafus don’t ruin the holiday cheer. Here’s how you can cope, too.
Get there earlier than you think.
Did you know that increase in travel volume is leading to epically long delays at the world’s busiest airports this year?
Don’t push your luck by cutting it close. Leave yourself plenty of extra time, especially if you’re checking bags. Experts typically recommend two hours for domestic flights and three for international; during the holiday season, give yourself at least an extra 30-45 minutes on top of that.
There’s an app for that.
Don’t check in at the airport. Download your airline’s app in advance of your trip, set up an account, and check in online. You can also store your boarding passes in your phone – most major US airports process digital boarding passes nowadays. There are a couple of benefits of doing this: You don’t have to wait in line at the airport to get your boarding pass, and you’re more likely to be able to snag the seat you want if you didn’t select it at the time of booking.
Checking bags? You can still check in online in advance, just head to your airline’s bag drop kiosks when you get to the terminal.
Most major airlines have invested significantly in their mobile apps, so that travelers can easily manage their bookings on the go. My favorites are Alaska Airlines, which makes in-app booking super streamlined (including mileage booking), and American Airlines, which has a clear and handy way to keep tabs on upgrade status and seat assignments.
International carriers have extremely rigorous weight limits for checked bags and carry-ons. Don’t be forced to ditch personal items or re-pack in a rush at the airport. I recently forgot to weigh a carry-on bag for a Cathay Pacific flight, and I can personally attest that neither you nor anyone else at the airport wants to see your unmentionables strewn across the check-in area. Fortunately, I was able to fit everything in my checked bag, but it added an unnecessary amount of stress to an already busy day.
Check your limits on the airline’s website and weigh before you go with a handy luggage scale. Or, better yet, get a suitcase like Bluesmart with its own built-in scale. Bluesmart bags can charge your devices, too!
Check your checkpoint.
Many airports have multiple checkpoints leading to the same section of the terminal. Before you get in a long line, ask an airport guide if there are alternative routes to your gate. Or, better yet, enroll in PreCheck for expedited screening (even if it’s too late to help you this time around, it’ll make next year’s travel oh so much easier).
To wrap or not to wrap?
It’s technically fine to pack wrapped gifts in your carry-on and checked bags – they are screened just like any other item. Be aware, though, that the TSA always reserves the right to unwrap and open if the items look suspicious or sound an alarm. So, if you’re committed to a picture-perfect ribbon or bow, it’s always best to wrap after arrival.
Remember, sharp objects are never allowed in your carry-on, so you’ll have to put that samurai sword in your checked bag or ship it ahead. Don’t forget, the same goes for small camping knives (I learned this the hard way trying to bring a Swiss Army Knife to California as a gift for my husband).
Deck the (airport) halls.
Leave a little bit of extra time to enjoy the festive atmosphere, especially if you are traveling with kids! Airports are increasingly spicing up the passenger experience with festive decorations, holiday activities, and live entertainment.
Cheapflights has even conveniently rounded up a list of the best-decked airports. Some of my favorite picks include Zurich (where kids can make gingerbread in the Airport Bakery), Denver (home to a free outdoor skating rink), and Heathrow (Who wouldn’t love a visit with Santa, complimentary gift-wrapping, and candle-making workshops?).
I grew up in the Chicago area, so I always love seeing the holiday decorations in the Terminal 3 atrium at O’Hare. The AA team works overnight for two solid weeks to drape this terminal with more than 7,000 lights, festive red bows, and green garlands. The cheerful atmosphere is the ultimate sign that I am finally home for the holidays!
There are so many resources that can help you check on your departure or delay status. If you don’t want to use your airline’s website or app, sites like FlightAware and FlightView are particularly handy. Look at the status of your inbound airplane to see how far behind you really are – if it hasn’t left its origin, and you’re set to depart in 30 minutes, chances are pretty good you won’t be on schedule.
Concerned about making a connection? Call the airline before you get on your first flight, or talk to a gate agent to see if they’ll adjust your itinerary free of charge.
Tweet for help.
Stranded and need to rebook? Turn to Twitter. Many airlines have established robust social media departments that integrate closely with customer service and operations. It’s great news for travelers, who can often get help simply by tweeting.
Reach out to your airline for rebooking help: Tweet publicly and then follow up with a DM that includes your record locator as well as some alternative flight numbers you’d be comfortable traveling on. I’ve had the fastest response times from United, Southwest, and American, but it’s always worth a try no matter which carrier you’re on.
Find your zen.
Long lines and harried travelers can make it hard to stay calm at the airport. Fortunately, many destinations offer a variety of stress-busting opportunities, from fitness centers to yoga rooms to chapels and meditation areas. Want to walk off the stress? Many domestic US airports like BWI, Cleveland, and Seattle now offer indoor walking paths.
For long-haul trips, I think it’s well worth the investment to splurge on a lounge day pass or a microtel to find some peace & quiet, catch a few zzzs, or take a shower. On a recent business trip to Cambodia, for example, I took advantage of Hong Kong airport’s Plaza Premium lounge to shower, recharge my electronics, and get ready to hit the ground running for meetings.
There’s nothing worse than being sick at the holidays. Stick to the basics to stay healthy and avoid bugs at the airport. Wash your hands frequently, stay hydrated (bring a reusable water bottle so you can fill up for free), and limit your alcohol intake (You’ll likely have plenty of opportunities to imbibe when you get there. Eggnog, anyone?). You can also take a vitamin supplement to keep bugs at bay – Emergen-C and Airborne are both good options.
So, would-be Grinches, there you have it.
My easy tips to make the most of your travels during the busy season. Consider this my gift to you. I hope they keep your inner Grinch nice and quiet so you can focus on what really matters this holiday season: Spending time with your loved ones.
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Got any holiday travel horror stories? Share in the comments!