Travelers report major stress while flying — here are 9 ways to reduce the hassle

Feb 26, 2020

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Taking a vacation is supposed to be a relaxing break from work and the stressors of everyday life. But, for many U.S. travelers, that’s not always the case.

More than 55% of recent flyers said the process of air travel — booking tickets and packing your tiny TSA-compliant toiletries, getting to and through the airport, boarding the aircraft and actually flying — is more stressful than going to work. The same percentage find spring cleaning a more relaxing experience, and 44% of recent flyers (about two in every five) said air travel is more stressful than spending the day with their in-laws or going to the dentist.

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How stressful is air travel?

To understand how stressful flying can be for some travelers, we surveyed more than 2,300 adults in the U.S. Of the approximately 1,100 who have flown on a commercial airline at least once in the last two years, about a third said going to the DMV is less stressful than air travel, and 37% said the same of filing their taxes. Ouch.

When we think about these everyday chores and responsibilities, it makes sense: Going to work is a familiar routine, and the stakes are pretty low for spring cleaning. If you miss a spot or don’t finish every room, you can always go back to it the next day.

And a majority of respondents, it seems, get along well with their in-laws.

(Image by Wyatt Smith)
(Image by Wyatt Smith)

I’m part of the 26% of travelers who would rather race to make a connection than wait for the results of an X-ray at the dentist, but maybe that’s just a consequence of my inexplicable bad luck with teeth — and also my familiarity with the process of air travel.

Vacation should be all about relaxation, and air travel (even when flying for business) doesn’t have to be a source of stress. OK, so maybe you can’t navigate New York-JFK with your eyes shut. But that doesn’t mean embarking on a trip, regardless of your destination, needs to be more anxiety-inducing than trying to Marie Kondo your junk drawer or preparing tax documents.

Related: Best travel credit cards of 2020

Improving the experience

The amount travelers are willing to pay to improve the air travel experience says a lot about where in the process they encounter nerve-wracking situations.

Air travel convenience


Willing to pay Average additional amount (among those willing to pay extra)
Avoid a layover or get a direct flight 63% $88
More legroom or a more comfortable seat 60% $58
Avoid a delay 42% $56
Skip the security line 41% $46
Avoid waiting for baggage 31% $45
Early boarding 30% $55

When asked to consider a six-hour, round-trip basic economy flight costing $500 (read: absolutely zero flexibility and even fewer frills), 63% of recent flyers said they’d be willing to pay more to avoid a layover (on average, $88).

Understandably, layovers can be problematic. Too short, and you might find yourself running through an unfamiliar airport to make a connection. Too long, and you’ll lose time en route to your destination. Either way, you increase your chances of a delay or missed connection when you book anything other than a nonstop flight.

(Image by Wyatt Smith)

For the convenience and comfort of more legroom, 60% of travelers would be willing to pay for a better seat — and, on average, they’d be willing to pay $58 for the privilege. Slightly less than half of all flyers surveyed said they’d pay extra to avoid a delay and skip the security line (42% and 41%, respectively). Those who would pay for the convenience were only willing, on average, to spend an additional $56 to evade a delay, and $10 less — an average of $46 — to hop the security line.

Only 30% of recent flyers would pay more for early boarding, but those who did saw it as one of the more valuable perks. On average, respondents were willing to pay up to $55 to jump ahead to an early boarding group. An additional 1% would pay extra to avoid waiting for baggage (and pay, on average, $45).

Tips for making air travel less stressful

If you count yourself among those flyers who would be willing to pay extra to make air travel more convenient (and, by extension, less stressful) the solution may already be in your wallet. Or, at least, well within reach.

Every traveler, in fact — even the most seasoned among us — can take additional steps to make the experience of flying less stressful and, dare we say it, more fun. There, we said it!

Skip to the front of the security line

Travelers may be able to take the fast lane through airport security (or customs on the way back into the country) by applying for a credit card that comes with a statement credit to cover the $85 to $100 fee to apply for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, a benefit that lasts five years. A few of our favorite low-fee cards that feature this perk include:

A Clear membership can also get you VIP-like treatment at the security line. And if you have the American Express® Green Card, you’ll get an up to $100 annual statement credit for this expedited airport security program, which lowers your out-of-pocket cost to $79 a year for a base membership — less if you simply join United or Delta’s frequent flyer programs. You can even use Clear to jump the line at sports venues and airport rental car locations around the country. Talk about a win-win.

The information for the Amex Green Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Board early

Keeping a cobranded credit card in your wallet may get you access to an earlier boarding group, which can be especially helpful for nervous travelers who need additional time to get settled and secure a space in the overhead bin.

Some of these cards — the United Explorer Card ($95 annual fee; waived the first year), for example, and the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card ($99 annual fee; waived for the first year; see rates and fees) — have annual fees waived the first year. The AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®, which has a $99 annual fee, also includes preferred boarding when you fly domestically.

Related: Which airline credit cards offer the best priority boarding perks?

Protect yourself against delays and cancellations

Book the first flight out

When deciding which flights to book, give preference to the first flight of the day, when possible, as cascading delays and cancellations are more common as the day goes on.

Choose a nonstop flight

When given the choice between a connecting and nonstop flight, always choose the latter. Cutting a layover out of your itinerary greatly reduces the likelihood of something going wrong during your trip, because there are simply fewer variables. If you have no choice but to book a connecting flight, leave yourself plenty of time to deplane, find your new gate and pass through immigration or security (when relevant).

Get trip protection 

Want to further safeguard against delay drama? Freebird is a service that protects your domestic itineraries in case your flight is canceled, you miss a connection or your flight is delayed four hours or more. With it, you’ll be rebooked on the next nonstop flight to your destination on any carrier for just $19 per leg, per person — nearly a third of the price most travelers surveyed are willing to pay to avoid the hassle of a delay.

The right credit card can also spare you the financial burden sometimes caused by severe delays and cancellations. At its most basic level, credit card trip protection policies guarantee you won’t be responsible for additional (reasonable) expenses that occur as a result of a lengthy trip delay with a common carrier. So, if you need to pay $1,100 for a hotel room after your flight out of Aspen is canceled due to snow, a card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve ensures you’ll be reimbursed. Delays typically need to be at least six hours in duration before the insurance kicks in, but you could be reimbursed up to $500 per ticket. And if that doesn’t give you at least some peace of mind in stressful situations, we don’t know what will.

Related: Best credit cards that offer trip delay reimbursement

Get comfortable

You don’t need to splurge on a first- or business-class ticket to enjoy a more comfortable seat. Travelers can easily get more legroom without even spending $58.

Pick a better seat

Depending on the airline and the route, you might be able to book an exit-row seat (read: more legroom) for as little as $18 — or even free, if you’re flying with Southwest and are able to board early enough in the process to snag a spot in that row. Spirit Airlines has Big Front Seats with 36 inches of pitch you can reserve for as little as $20 per person, and select American Airlines aircraft are equipped with crew rest seats that offer generous recline you can request for free. You can also use SeatGuru to identify seats that may have extra legroom or recline.

Pay for an upgrade

And if you simply want to upgrade to a bigger, better seat, check to see if you have a credit card in your wallet that can offset the cost, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express, which comes with an annual airline credit, worth up to $200. That could mean 10 one-way flights in Spirit’s La-Z-Boy-like seats. Just think about it.

Ditch the checked luggage

Stick with a carry-on

If the most frustrating part of any flight is, at the end of it all, waiting around the baggage carousel hoping to see your suitcase tumble out onto the conveyer belt, cut the risk and the waiting by packing only a carry-on. With the right bag and packing strategies, it’s very reasonable to pack in a carry-on suitcase for many multiday trips.

Get your luggage delivered

But, if that just won’t do, there are reasonably priced services that will pick-up your checked bags from the baggage carousel and deliver them to your home, hotel or other destination within 100 miles of a major airport within four to six hours of landing.

Related: The best starter travel credit cards

Bottom line

For self-proclaimed AvGeeks, flying is usually a breeze. But even experienced road warriors can encounter inconveniences and annoyances between the airport check-in desk and those final moments at baggage claim. And when there are setbacks — late boarding, flight delays, lost luggage — there’s often a cyclical effect, and one complication can quickly lead to another. That’s why being proactive and eliminating as many barriers as possible can go a long way toward guaranteeing a stress-free flight.

So, before you book your next trip, review these tips and see if you can eliminate at least a few stressors from your air travel experience. You might just find yourself hanging out at the airport lounge with time to spare. Really, nothing will help you unwind quite like a complimentary glass of bubbly.

Oh, and if you count yourself among the 44% who find the dentist less stressful than air travel, please tell us: Where do you get your teeth cleaned?

All photos by Wyatt Smith / The Points Guy.

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card, click here.

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