10 tips for surviving holiday travel this season

Dec 26, 2019

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional information about the holiday travel season. This post was originally published on Dec. 21, 2019. 

We are in the midst of the holiday travel season, and it’s a busy one. In fact, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects to screen 42 million passengers between Dec. 19 and Jan. 5, which is up 3.9% from 2018. And industry trade group Airlines for America says the busiest travel days — Dec. 26 and Dec. 27 — will serve 2.9 million passengers each day.

With that sort of influx, the most wonderful time of the year can very quickly become the most stressful time of the year at the airport, as the majority of those travelers are leisure travelers who don’t fly week in and week out, and many of them have little ones along for the journey.

This logjam of holiday flyers will probably result in overcrowding, longer lines and some tense moments, especially if winter weather doesn’t cooperate and delays or cancellations become an issue. But your family doesn’t have to be the one succumbing to stress at the check-in counter with an overweight bag, dealing with banned items in the TSA line or racing through the terminal frantically trying to catch a flight. Instead, you and your loved ones can be the travelers relaxing in an airport lounge and expertly avoiding bag fees — with a solid backup plan in the event of an issue with flight operations.

Related: How to save serious cash on holiday travel

(Photo by rrecrutt / Getty Images.)
(Photo by rrecrutt/Getty Images)

In This Post

The right credit card can help

It might be too late to add a new credit card to your wallet to help make your holiday travel easier or potentially more affordable, but it’s not too late to see if you already have the right credit card — or plan for next time. Some credit cards protect you from bag fees, while others help you earn elite status faster, give you credits to use on in-flight Wi-Fi, upgrade your boarding position or include a statement credit for your onboard purchases.

For example, having the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express gets you and your traveling companions a free checked bag on Delta flights. Having the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card reimburses you for Wi-Fi purchases on Southwest Airlines (365 $8 credits per year) and also snags you four upgraded boarding positions per year, just in case that perfect Southwest seat is your goal.

There are also credit cards that get you access to airport lounges or cover the cost of a meal at the airport — both of which are much better ways to spend time before or between flights than sitting at the gate. If you do get a last-minute credit card with a Priority Pass membership, you can still use a digital membership card at most eligible lounges! A last-minute The Platinum Card® from American Express with an instant card number should also do the trick to get you into an American Express Centurion Lounge or other partner lounges including Priority Pass Select, Delta Sky Clubs (on same-day Delta flights), Airspace and Escapes lounges.

Related: Best Priority Pass lounges in the US

Go early

I’m not going to tell you to get to the airport early, but you should probably get to the airport early. Nothing induces intense and immediate stress faster than running late for your flight. Allow enough time for potential traffic and airport delays.

While we are on the topic of being ahead of schedule, taking the first flight of the morning is a good idea, too. Those early a.m. flights are the most likely to depart on time, so get a jump on the day and book the early bird. If you notice bad weather forecast for your travel date, then getting out in the morning can be even more important. Here are a few tips for changing your flights for free.

(Photo by Darren Murph / TPG)
(Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

Be strategic about checking versus carrying on

During the holidays, some travelers swear by the mantra of “stay calm by not carrying on.” While I vastly prefer to carry-on my bags 95% of the time, there is some logic to checking everything you can, especially if you have kids to chase after in the airport. If you check your bags, your hands are free, you don’t need to worry about early boarding — as overhead bin space isn’t a problem — and you don’t have to stress as much over the security screening process and whether you need to pull out half your items to place them in bins.

Fits snuggly in the overhead bin. (Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

While checking bags can slow you down a little, it can also result in some bonus free miles if the bags are slow to come down to baggage claim. If you really want to push the easy button, you can even skip baggage claim completely and have your checked bags delivered to your final destination.

Since we’re on the topic of bags, if you’re in the market for a new carry-on bag, here’s a look at the latest Away carry-on, the Rimowa that has taken me around the world many times and a roundup of some of our other luggage favorites for adults and kids.

Consider shipping your stockings

While strategically checking or carrying on a bag will work in most cases, there are circumstances where shipping packages to your final destination can be even easier — and sometimes, cheaper. If checking your bags would subject you to oversized baggage fees, then shipping can be a smart decision. Try the site LugLess to price out and purchase shipping for your belongings (or presents), whether you want DIY drop-off or doorstep pickup and delivery.

Related: TPG’s top 2019 gifts for family travelers

Know the TSA rules for holiday items

Can you bring wrapped presents through security? Yes, technically, but it’s a bad idea in the event TSA agents need to inspect what’s inside. Traveling with a snow globe? Make sure that the liquid is 3.4 ounces or less and it can fit in a quart-sized, resealable plastic bag. (So really, don’t carry-on that snow globe.)

You can bring a fruitcake, sufganiyot or cookies through security, too, but you may want to put food in its own tray for inspection.

(Photo by Jon Bailey/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Jon Bailey/The Points Guy)

CLEAR security in a flash

On peak travel days, TSA PreCheck isn’t always enough to get you through security as fast as you’d like even if you left the snow globes at home. (I’m looking at you, Denver and Newark.) If you want the one-two punch of having all available expedited security options, consider getting Clear. Here’s our guide to getting and using Clear. You can even wait and apply for Clear when you’re at the airport if you see the regular security line crawling along slower than you like, so you don’t have to commit in advance.

If you have the American Express® Green Card, be sure to use it to purchase Clear, as it comes with a $100 annual statement credit for the program. Also remember that kids can use Clear for free with you, and additional adults can be added to your main plan for just $50 per year.

Clear security line (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
CLEAR security line. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Get a two-month free trial of Clear using code TPG2M

Spend $19 for your backup plan

During holiday travel, you need a backup plan in case things go awry with your scheduled flights. That might mean purchasing travel insurance or being very selective about which credit card you use to purchase the flight so you have some built-in protections. Another tool to consider is spending $19 extra to create your own Plan B by purchasing Freebird. As long as you purchase the service at least two days in advance of your flight, Freebird will book you on a new ticket at its expense if your original flight is canceled, delayed by more than four hours or you miss your connection.

Whether you buy extra flight protections or not, you’ll want to download the apps for all the airlines you’re flying so you can get instant push notifications about gate changes or delays, or other changes. Then, if delays or cancellations do happen, act quickly.

Lounge around

The airport lounges of today aren’t just for the elite: They’re for the savvy. So, don’t find yourself stuck out at the gate. Get yourself into a lounge on your holiday trip instead and enjoy some complimentary food, beverages and maybe even a quick massage.

If the whole family is flying for the holidays, you might want to specifically seek lounges that have family rooms, such as select Amex Centurion Lounges.

If you’re just looking for the best places to lounge, here are the top Priority Pass lounges in the U.S. — and how a card you might already have in your wallet could get you access. Cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve or The Platinum Card® from American Express will do the trick.

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

(Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

BYO onboard essentials

Here are some tips for packing like a pro — as well as some specifically tailored to parents traveling with littles. But whether you’re flying solo or with a basketball team’s worth of kiddos, you need to consider bringing your own food, comfort items and entertainment on board. Some airlines are better than others at providing some (or all) of those amenities, but it’s best to be self-reliant — especially if you’re traveling in economy.

Grab headphones, a neck pillow, snacks and something to keep you occupied and you’ll be all set, even if the airline doesn’t have anything to offer you beyond a small seat.

Related: These are the best US airlines for family travelers

Heck, you could pack your own caviar and just pretend you’re in Lufthansa First Class, even if you’re in seat 32B on Spirit Airlines.

Image courtesy of Noblige via Getty Images.
(Image courtesy of Noblige via Getty Images)

Spread cheer

As hard as it can sometimes be to travel during the holidays, imagine what it’s like to work flight after flight while others are heading home to trim the tree. A smile, a patient attitude and a thank you to crew members can go a long way. If you want to go further, Starbucks gift cards or prepackaged food items for the crew are always an extra welcome treat.

Bottom line

The holidays are an exciting time to go home or get away, but an airport or a crowded plane aren’t always the most magical portion of the experience. But we promise, you’ll survive your holiday travels by making a few strategic choices, packing your wallet appropriately and being prepared.

Additional reporting by Benet Wilson.

Featured image by Visionkick/Getty Images

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