Holiday Travel. How can two such simple and seemingly harmless words bring about so many competing emotions? For some, holiday travel conjures up warm fuzzies; cozy fireside puzzles and games, winter walks, and pine-scented air. For others, holiday travel makes their skin go cold with fear in anticipation of long security lines, delayed or canceled flights, and lost luggage.
According to Expedia®, “Air travel is a leading cause of stress for 55% of Americans, who find it more daunting than filing taxes or visiting the dentist.” Layer in holiday travel and that number is sure to rise dramatically.
Holiday travel need not be stressful, especially when your plans include flights. In fact, air travel can become a far better experience with advanced prep and learning a few tips and tricks. Follow along for 8 essential holiday travel tips that will be sure to lift your spirits this year.
1. When you book air travel matters
Sources vary about the ideal times to book air travel, but many agree on a few basic principles. For instance, book domestic flights at least a month ahead and international flights at least 60 days ahead in order to secure the best fares. Booking flights that depart before 3 p.m. are less likely to be delayed, although a good rule of thumb is the earlier in the day the flight takes off, the better. Sunday is known to be the best day of the week to book cheap flights, however, avoid departing on a Sunday as it’s the most expensive day to travel. If you have time, consider tracking flights to be alerted when prices drop.
2. Get TSA PreCheck, CLEAR, or both
Let’s face it, the hassle of flying these days has more to do with pre-flight than in-flight issues. Lines zigzag in every direction, herding holiday travelers around the airport like cattle. Signs with confusing acronyms abound. One way to avoid the confusion and anxiety of pre-boarding is to understand the differences between TSA PreCheck and CLEAR.
TSA stands for Transportation Security Administration. It’s the government agency responsible for travel safety. Getting TSA ‘PreCheck’ allows passengers to take a dedicated line in which they get to keep their shoes on, and leave toiletries and laptops in their carry-on bags. The fee for TSA PreCheck is under $80 for five years, so for those who travel at least 2-3 times a year, it’s a game changer.
CLEAR costs just under $200 a year. It’s a domestic-only private membership program that speeds up the identification process for passengers. Frequent fliers, as well as those who want to make holiday travel as stress-free as possible, might consider having both CLEAR and TSA PreCheck. But remember, you’ll still have to take your shoes off with CLEAR unless you also have TSA PreCheck, as CLEAR is only helpful in speeding up identity verification, not the security process. Since fewer people have both CLEAR and PreCheck, their lines tend to be shorter and quicker.
3. Invest in tracking devices for your bags
What have we learned from the summer of lost luggage? We’ve learned to check bags only when absolutely necessary. But holiday travel inevitably comes with baggage. And lots of it. So how can we best prepare for the possibility of delayed or lost luggage? AirTags are an inexpensive way to keep track of belongings. Tuck one into an interior suitcase pocket. Even if your bags end up in Dublin instead of Denver, at least you will know exactly where they are.
4. Hire a travel advisor
Who needs a travel advisor? It turns out, we all do. With the unpredictability of travel, especially post-COVID, there’s never been a more important time to lean on the experts. Travel advisors are trained to tackle all travel-related issues, and most even thrive on it. This means should anything go awry during your travels, someone other than you is on top of fixing it. Travel advisors are even more critical over the holidays, as wait times for getting in touch with a live airline representative by phone are lengthy and frustrating. Travel advisors often learn of canceled flights before passengers do, so have the opportunity to rebook them ahead of the masses.
CIRE Travel’s Eric Hrubant sums up the need for using a travel advisor. “Travel planning and traveling can be stressful, especially over the holidays, so work with a professional travel advisor. When using a travel advisor, you leverage their experience, contacts, and time. Say goodbye to hunting and pecking, not to mention endless hold times when something goes wrong. A travel advisor always has your back.”
5. Bring plane food
Anyone who has ever been hangry doesn’t need reminding that being hangry on an airplane is next-level hunger. But fear not, there are ways to preempt hunger issues when traveling. For one, don’t rely on plane food. Not only is it costly and subpar nutritionally, but it never arrives when you want it.
Instead, bring food on the flight so you are in charge of your meal times and calorie intake. This goes for children as well. Pack their favorite meals and snacks and have plenty to spare in case you are delayed on the tarmac. A few holiday treats like candy canes and peppermint bark are sure to win over your little ones while awaiting take-off.
Consider bringing a reusable water bottle with you on departure day. It’s a way to be mindful of our planet by avoiding single-use plastic. Many airports have convenient bottle-filling stations to encourage the practice. Just be sure it’s empty when you breeze through security with TSA PreCheck and CLEAR.
6. Wrap gifts at your destination
For most of us traveling during the holidays, carry-on only isn’t a viable option. But there are other ways to make your travel experience at the airport smoother. If possible, wrap gifts at your final destination so security doesn’t destroy them on a random inspection.
Think small. I’ll bet your mother-in-law would prefer a pair of dangly earrings instead of a new toaster anyway. Consider the weight and fragility of gifts now so you aren’t paying for overweight luggage later. Also, always check TSA guidelines to determine what you can and can’t bring on an airplane.
7. Choose your airport wisely
8. Expect the unexpected
We can prepare for holiday travel a week out or six months, but when the day of our flight arrives, anything can happen. Adopting a positive mindset and packing a little extra patience will go a long way toward making holiday travel less painful. The more advanced prep the better. Whether that’s pre-charged iPads, iPhones, and AirPods or using a luggage scale to ensure our checked luggage isn’t exceeding maximum capacity.
Little things count. Expect your flight to be delayed and you’ll be happily surprised when it isn’t. Most airlines build in time, so even flights delayed 30 minutes generally tend to land as scheduled.
Holiday travel should be something to look forward to. It shouldn’t weigh more on the anxiety scale than a dental cleaning or filing taxes. Letting the stress of air travel take the fun out of the holiday season can be minimized when we are prepared. Holiday travel. Two simple words. Let’s not forget what it’s all about—family, friends, and loved ones.
To help keep snacks and other carry-on items organized:
Author: Jamie Edwards is an award-winning travel writer based in Washington DC. She is also the creator of I am Lost and Found, a website devoted to inspiring travel. Jamie has traveled to 68 countries and all 7 continents—always seeking stories to tell about her far-flung adventures.