9 tips for flying during the holidays this season

Dec 23, 2021

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Despite the ongoing pandemic and the emergence of the omicron variant, we are in the midst of another busy holiday travel season — and thanks to both a surge in demand and ongoing staffing and supply shortages, travelers might want to brace for crowded airports, delays and full planes.

You can see how the most wonderful time of the year can very quickly become the most stressful time of the year at the airport, and many travelers will have little ones along for the journey.

This logjam of holiday flyers will probably result in overcrowding, long lines and some tense moments, especially if winter weather doesn’t cooperate and delays or cancellations become an issue. And with coronavirus cases spiking all over the world, the wait for both a COVID-19 test and the result could add another layer of stress for travelers flying abroad.

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 Transportation Security Administration 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, but the season isn’t over yet. You can also check to see if you already have the right credit card in your wallet. Some credit cards protect you from incurring bag fees while others help you earn elite status (think: a priority line for airline customer service and the hope of a holiday upgrade). You could have a credit card that lets you board early or one that gives you a statement credit for your onboard purchases.

For example, having the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card 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 (up to 365 credits per year) and also includes 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. (Just know that many airport restaurants and lounges still haven’t reopened.)

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) and Airspace and Escape lounges. Enrollment is required for select benefits.

Related: How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines

Get to the airport early

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

Nothing induces intense and immediate stress faster than running late for your flight — especially in today’s world. Ongoing staffing shortages, including those at the TSA, for example, could mean longer-than-normal security lines.

It’s especially important to leave more time if you’re traveling to a destination that requires document checks, such as negative COVID-19 test results and proof of vaccination. Be sure to have all your documents signed, organized and handy to expedite your experience, particularly if you’re required to check in at the airport.

Taking the first flight of the morning is a good idea, too. Those early morning flights are the most likely to have been cleaned overnight and 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 — certainly a possibility this year — then getting out in the morning can be even more important.

Here are a few tips for changing your flights for free.

Be strategic about checking bags

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

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.

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 the baggage claim. If you really want to push the easy button, you can even skip the baggage claim completely and have your checked bags delivered to your final destination.

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 and purchase shipping for your belongings (or presents), whether you want DIY drop-off or doorstep pickup and delivery. Just remember that shipping delays are worse than normal this holiday season, so allow extra time.

Related: The best travel suitcases

Know the TSA rules for holiday items

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

Can you bring wrapped presents through security? 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.

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. Just keep in mind that some TSA PreCheck and Clear lanes are still closed due to ongoing airport operation changes.

The Amex Platinum card now comes with up to $189 in Clear statement credits each calendar year, meaning you can receive Clear for free (membership costs $189). If you have the American Express® Green Card, 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.

You can get Clear for a discounted rate of $149 for 12 months using code TPG149 or get a two-month free trial of Clear using code TPG2M. You may also be able to get Clear for a more affordable price if you’re a Delta or United frequent flyer member.

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.

Lounge around

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

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 if you don’t want to be. Get yourself into a lounge on your holiday trip instead and enjoy some complimentary food and beverages.

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 and The Platinum Card from American Express will do the trick.

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

Bring your own onboard essentials

Here are some tips for packing like a pro — as well as some specifically tailored to parents traveling with young children.

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.

Although many airlines have resumed their inflight food and beverage service, with ever-changing rules, you’ll want to be 110% prepared.

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

Follow the rules

(Photo by Orbon Alija/Getty Images)

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all travelers 2 and older are still required to wear a face mask in airports and on airplanes.

Because of this, you’ll want to make sure you have an approved mask for every family member.

No matter where you’re going or how you’re getting there, be sure to comply with local rules and regulations, which may include showing proof of vaccination, proof of a negative COVID-19 test, wearing a mask in public spaces and completing health forms and passenger locator forms.

Keep things simple by printing copies of all your mandatory documents, as well as your vaccination card, before leaving home.

Bottom line

The holidays are an exciting time to go home or get away, but an airport or a crowded plane isn’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 and Melanie Lieberman. 

Featured photo by Visionkick/Getty Images.

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