Holiday travel rush: What to expect if you're flying

Arrive early. Brace for crowds. Pack smart.

That’s the advice from airport officials as the busy rush around Christmas and the winter holidays kicks into high gear this week.

Passenger counts begin trending up this week, which falls during one of the year’s busiest periods for air travel.

Overall, the trade group Airlines for America expects a record 45.2 million passengers from Dec. 16 through Jan. 5. That will cap what's expected to be the busiest year ever for air travel in the United States.

“We are on track to eclipse last year’s all-time high,” John Heimlich, chief economist for the group, told USA TODAY earlier this month. “This holiday push will be the final frontier.”

If you’re going to be one of those travelers, knowing what to expect can help you get through the airport more smoothly. These tried and true tips that can help make your holiday trip less stressful, especially for those who don’t fly often. And even frequent fliers may benefit from revisiting some of these basic suggestions during the holidays, when unpredictably can upend battle-tested flying strategies.

Allow extra time, expect busy terminals

No one wants to spend more time than necessary waiting in an airport terminal. But this isn’t the time of year to test how close you can cut it.

Aside from the possibility of busy terminals and long lines at check-in and security, expect heavier-than-usual traffic on entrance roadways that could add extra time in getting to the airport.

“Allow plenty of time to get to the airport, park and check in, arriving 90 minutes prior to departure,” advises Kansas City International Airport in Missouri. Florida’s Orlando International offers a similar warning, saying: “Record passenger traffic means parking garages can fill quickly. Arrive at the airport early enough to locate a space … .”

Once inside, the holiday throngs can lead to unpredictable back-ups at check-in counters and security lines. Arriving to the airport 45 minutes earlier than normal might make a world of difference, especially if you find yourself stuck in a security line filled with slow-moving families making their once-a-year holiday trip. And, if you know your airport is especially prone to long holiday lines, consider arriving up to 90 minutes earlier than you normally would. Remember: If you miss your flight, this is a tough time of the year to find empty seats on other flights.

Pack smart

Pack your carry-ons with security lines in mind. Remember, that unless you’re eligible for the TSA’s Precheck lines, laptops and liquids must come out separately to go through the screening checkpoints. And know that certain food items may be difficult to bring through security lines.

For the infrequent fliers, remember that most liquids are prohibited from carry-ons unless they are in containers of 3.4 ounces or less and are held in a clear quart-sized plastic bag. (See the TSA’s full “3-1-1” rules on liquids). Some exceptions are made for liquids related to medical or childcare needs, but it may be smart to brush up on those rules here.

Pack so that your laptops, liquids and other items can be quickly taken in and out of your luggage. That will not only speed up your trip through security, but will also shorten the wait for those behind you.

And if you’re bringing presents, consider holding off on wrapping them until you get to your destination. The TSA doesn’t prohibit wrapped presents, but it does warn that you may have to unwrap them if something inside raises alarms.

Pack smart (II)

Once you’ve packed to speed up your trip through security, give yourself a pat on the back. But also remember that you need to pack smartly for yourself. If you check a bag – either in advance or at the gate after your plane runs out of overhead bin space – remember to keep all of your important medicines and valuable items in your carry-on.

Most checked bags are delivered on time, but you don’t want to be without anything crucial if your bag is delayed or lost. Similarly, if you’re forced to check a bag at the last moment, remember to take out valuables as well as fragile items that could be easily damaged.

Keep an eye on potential travel trouble spots

Keep an eye on the weather starting as early as 72 hours leading up to your flight. Even if it’s sunny and warm where you are, there may be problems between you and your destination. Snow, wind, rain and poor visibility are some of the most common weather problems for the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

If there’s poor weather at home – or at your destination – monitor your airline’s website for potential updates. In some cases, usually ahead of big storms, airlines will issue weather waivers that may allow you to move your flight at no cost to avoid weather-related disruptions.

Nearly every carrier’s website now lets you check the status of your flight. On the day of your flight (or the evening before), keep tabs on your flight status – especially if you know there’s poor weather in the forecast.  The sooner you know there’s a cancellation or delay that could affect your travel, the sooner you’ll be able to troubleshoot it with your airline or travel agent.

And, remember, sometimes the poor weather that affects your flight is in between you and your destination. A long line of strong thunderstorms can delay flights across a large region. Similarly, a flight between two cities under sunny skies could become delayed or canceled or the crew or airplane schedule to fly it gets bogged down in a snowstorm elsewhere.

Keep your phones and electronic devices handy

If your flight is canceled or delayed and you need to book a new flight, most people wait at their gate or head to an airline customer service desk to get help with a new ticket. That works, but you can also call the airline's reservation number to ask for help in getting a new flight, perhaps beating those in line to a seat. If your phone is low on power, keep your airline's 1-800 number handy and go looking for an old-school payphone.

Also, many airlines have added rebooking features on their mobile apps that allow customers to select new flights during so-called "irregular" operations. That can be a little more difficult during the holidays when disruptions affect so many fliers, but -- if your carrier's mobile app has such a feature -- it's another option that might help you snag a new flight. And if you've got a laptop and Wi-Fi, you can try your hand looking for a new flight on your airline's website -- though making weather-related flight changes online can be more difficult on some airlines than others.

Busiest days

Airports will see a steady rush throughout the holiday period, the peaks won't be the same everywhere.

At Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport, officials expect their busiest days to be spaced out throughout the holiday window. The peak days there are expected to be Friday, Dec. 23; Friday Dec. 30; Monday, Jan. 2; and Thursday Jan. 5.

To the west, officials at Los Angeles International – the nation’s 3rd-busiest airport – say the busiest days are expected to come this week. LAX says about 239,000 fliers are expected to pass through the airport on both Wednesday (Dec. 21) and Friday (Dec.23). The slowest days there will be Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve, LAX says.

At Florida’s Orlando International, however, officials say five of the six busiest days during the window will fall between Christmas and New Year’s. Orlando officials believe that airport’s two busiest days during the holiday period will be Wednesday, Dec. 28, followed by Tuesday, Dec. 27.

TSA ready for the rush?

The Transportation Security Administration had been in the spotlight earlier this year when a sudden spike in security wait times generated headlines and threatened to mar the busy summer travel season. But the TSA eventually got a handle on the long lines — thanks in part to some help from the airlines themselves — and wait times were fairly normal for the summer.

The agency’s staffing was up ahead of Thanksgiving, and TSA successfully handled the rush around that holiday. Despite the surge of fliers, the agency said 95% of travelers waited less than 15 minutes in checkpoint lines and 99% waited less than 30 minutes. TSA is hoping for a repeat around the Christmas holiday.

Pack your patience

Perhaps the golden rule of travel, this is especially important during the busy holiday rush. Lines are longer and airports and airplanes are even more crowded than normal. Nerves fray easier. But even when things get stressful, take a deep breath and try to keep a smile on your face. A courteous nod to a fellow traveler will only increase the chances that’ll they’ll be courteous to you.

And never take out your frustrations out on airline employees, most of whom are conscientious workers doing their best to get everyone on their way during an intensely busy time.

Even if you’re convinced your airline has wronged you, remember that these workers often control your fate in getting to your final destination. Being polite and respectful will bring better service than being hostile or rude. Ask for a supervisor if you must, but know they may not have a different answer. Above all, always try to show workers the same respect you’d want.

Contributing: Bart Jansen, USA TODAY


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