16 Holiday Travel Tips Every Smart Traveler Needs to Know

If you're traveling over the holidays this year, we've got the sanity savers you need to get to your destination without flying off the deep end.

Planning on traveling this holiday season, whether you’re jetting off on a warm-weather Christmas getaway, checking out a magical Christmas town, or visiting family? You’re not alone. According to Chris Davidson of travel research company MMGY Global, 53 percent of adults in the United States are making plans to travel in the next three months. And, says online travel resource Hopper, the TSA is anticipating around two million travelers each day over the Christmas travel period, which is double 2020’s levels. Of course, when it comes to celebrating Christmas, it’s worth it—but you do need some holiday travel tips to make things as smooth and stress-free as possible.

After all, even without large numbers of people joining you on the road and in the sky, traveling can be tricky, especially right now. “If the last 18 months has taught us anything about traveling, it’s the importance of being prepared,” says Carol Mueller, vice president of Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. “The unpredictable nature of travel disruptions has been compounded by the pandemic.”

To help you spend your holidays at your destination instead of stuck in the security line or trying to find lunch at the highway rest stop, we asked top travel experts to share their best Christmas travel tips. You’ll get the lowdown on everything from when to book a flight or drive to your destination, how to pack presents, and—this year, again—how to deal with COVID travel guidelines. Trust us: It’s information you shouldn’t leave home without. Looking for Christmas activities closer to home? Some of these tips will also come in handy when you’re driving to the best Christmas light shows near you.

Take the earliest flight of the day

The holidays are a notoriously difficult time to fly, says Molly Fergus, general manager of TripSavvy. Winter weather and peak crowds mean that one cancellation can cascade down to multiple other flights. Even worse, bad weather in a busy airport like JFK or O’Hare can ripple throughout the whole country and impact millions. The best holiday travel tip to hedge against canceled or delayed flights is to book the very first flight of the morning, Fergus says: “It’s unpleasant, sure, but you won’t have to worry about your plane getting stuck at another airport and delaying—or altogether canceling—your flight.”

Book early

This holiday and winter travel season is poised to set records. As such, experts are urging travelers to begin planning now, as hotel and flight costs are rapidly rising. Travel booking site Hopper recommends booking both Thanksgiving and Christmas travel no later than Halloween, after which airfare is expected to increase by 40 percent.

Choose the right travel date for the best deal

Choosing the right day for holiday travel is important, too. According to Hopper, the cheapest day to fly for Thanksgiving is Monday, November 22. For Christmas travel, the magic date for the best deals is Tuesday, December 21.

The worst time to set off on your holiday trip this year? Priceline reports that one of the busiest days to travel will be the day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday, November 24. Some other dates to add to that list: the Wednesday before Christmas, December 22, and the Tuesday between Christmas and New Year’s, December 28. Leaving a day or two early and staying a day later can save you a lot of money and time spent in transit. Or consider flying on the holiday itself, when air traffic is lighter and prices are lower. Celebrating with some extra special Christmas Eve traditions can make up for traveling on the big day.

Consider alternate airports

One way to beat the crowds and cut down stress during the holidays is to fly in and out of airports that are traditionally less crowded. In Southern Florida, for example, flights into Miami may be full, but less than an hour north are Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach airports, which both offer flights around the country and may have additional seating and lower prices than the larger hub. FYI, these are the most reliable airports in the United States.

Watch the weather

Speaking of delays, winter holidays often mean rain, sleet, snow, and ice, which can wreak all sorts of havoc on your plans, whether you’re flying or driving. Make sure to watch the weather reports in advance of your trip and do your best to adjust accordingly. Ahead of a major weather event or storm, airlines typically issue flexible travel policies to allow travelers to postpone their trip to a later date or move plans to an earlier date for no additional fees. You may even be able to choose an alternate destination, but keep in mind that if you change the destination, you may have to pay any difference in the fare.

Even if the weather is fine in your part of the country, keep an eye on your destination, and remember that when there’s a weather event that impacts some of the country’s busiest airports, the effects ripple out all over the country. If you’re driving, be sure to follow our safety tips for taking a winter road trip.

Have a backup plan

man standing at the Delta counter in an airport decorated for christmas and the holiday seasonSpencer Platt/Getty Images

Plan your aspirational trip for the holidays, but also come up with a second option, just in case. “That way, if something happens, you have a playbook and are not caught flat-footed,” says Jacqueline Hampton, CEO of travel planning site Portico. “And if your aspirational trip happens, you can use your backup plan for a fun January/February getaway.”

Alexa LaBaw, of private luxury travel advisor Marchay Travel, agrees, recommending that you always have not just a Plan B but also a Plan C. “Things can change on a dime, and it’s best to be prepared for various scenarios,” she says. “It’s always helpful to check resources like the CDC or government/tourism board websites, and working with your travel advisor on alternative trip options can be key.” This may be the time to consider using a travel advisor, even if you wouldn’t normally do so. “Travel is different these days,” LaBaw adds. “The preparation and knowledge from a trusted travel advisor helps set expectations for the trip and curb stress if something needs to be canceled or rescheduled.”

Ace airport security

You never know when you’re going to get flagged by the TSA. You can save yourself a lot of time and security-line headaches by applying for TSA PreCheck. You’ll skip the longest lines at security and get to keep your shoes, jackets, and belts on. The fee covers you for five years, and if you’re a parent, your kids 12 and under can go into the Fast Pass line with you, too.

Don’t have time to sign up for PreCheck? Then know the TSA rules to avoid security delays: All liquids need to be less than 3.4 ounces and fit into one 1-quart bag (the 3-1-1 rule). Wondering whether your baby food and pie can fly? Check out the TSA’s What Can I Bring page. (Spoiler alert: They’re both fine.)

Don’t wrap gifts before you fly

Traveling with Christmas gifts? Don’t wrap them, regardless of whether you’re putting them in your carry-on luggage or checked baggage, advises Liberty Travel’s Christina Pedroni. If the TSA decides they need to inspect your items, they will have to unwrap them. And, says Pedroni, “if you plan to give bottles of wine as a gift, make sure to pack them in your checked baggage, as they will exceed liquid limits for carry-on bags and be refused at security.” FYI, the same goes for snow globes.

Utilize the hotel concierge

If you’re staying at a hotel during your holiday trip, be sure to reach out to the concierge and share your itinerary, advises Jeffrey Morgan, who’s worked in hospitality for 30 years and is currently chief concierge at Conrad Washington DC. “A good concierge is always aware of what is current in the city, what new events are happening, the latest restaurants, and the newest museum exhibits,” he explains. “They may have better restaurants to suggest or could access better dining times. They can really help make your family’s vacation memorable.”

Hampton also recommends leveraging the concierge at the hotel for help with COVID protocols. “They’ll know where you can get a test or be able to call the pharmacy if you’re traveling internationally,” she says.

Research COVID requirements before leaving town

Every state is handling COVID precautions differently. “In some cities, like New York City, to dine indoors you must have proof of vaccination or a negative test result within the last 72 hours,” says Fergus. Proof requirements will vary by city and state, too, so look up any apps that are accepted in your destination country and download them before leaving. Here are the other things that should be on your COVID checklist for your holiday travels:

  • Take a picture of your vaccination card, and then put the card in a Ziploc bag or in an openable plastic protector, suggests Hampton. You’ll need the actual card at the airport to check in, but most restaurants accept a picture of it as proof. Or, download an approved COVID vaccine app that keeps track of your status.
  • Bring a home test with you, if possible. “Given we’re moving into cold season, it can come in handy for peace of mind,” says Hampton. “Recently when I traveled, my partner caught a cold. Since we were visiting his elderly parents, we wanted to be extra careful and used the home test to verify that it was just a cold. I suggest ordering it well before your trip and also keeping one or two on hand for the winter.”
  • Be sure to pack masks, hand sanitizer, and any other PPE that you may need while traveling and at your destination. And don’t let your guard down—these are the places you’re most likely to catch coronavirus.

Pack light

Anonymous Female Packing Stuff in Backpack and Putting Face Mask on the Backpackminiseries/Getty Images

“Pack light and aim to just bring carry-ons—avoid checking bags,” advises Byron Thomas, founder of travel company Niarra Travel. Remember: Most hotel and travel accommodations offer laundry services, so you really don’t have to pack everything in your closet, even for longer trips. Not checking luggage makes getting through the airport quicker, and it’s less stressful to have fewer bags to weigh you down and keep track of. “Packing light and only traveling with carry-ons is also better for the environment,” he adds, “as cargo and baggage contribute to the weight of an aircraft, which adds to carbon emissions.”

Bring snacks

All of our experts note that bringing food, whether you’re driving or flying, is an important holiday travel tip this year. Some airports (and highway rest stops) are still operating at a reduced capacity, says Fergus, so consider packing your own snacks and essentials for your flight. Bring a reusable water bottle to fill up at the airport, too, she says—just remember to empty it before going through security.

Hampton always takes a protein snack (e.g., nuts or power bars) and a pick-me-up snack (e.g., dark chocolate). “That way, if there are unexpected delays or you have a long trip, you’re all set,” she says. Or pick up a salad (keep the dressing separate so it will last longer) from a spot like Farmer’s Fridge, packaged for travel and available at many airports.

Buy travel insurance

“The COVID-19 pandemic impacted virtually every traveler on the planet, and for that reason, we expect the demand for insurance coverage to remain high,” says Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer at travel insurance company Squaremouth. “Close to 40 percent of our travelers who booked trips for this holiday season specifically sought out coverage for contracting COVID-19—that is the highest percentage we have seen since the onset of the pandemic.”

Just remember that travel insurance policies only apply to contracting COVID-19 and being quarantined, before or during your trip. Travel-delay coverage can also provide benefits if a traveler is quarantined at their destination and is unable to return home as scheduled. However, things like missing your flight due to long security lines, your passport not arriving, not getting a negative COVID test in time, or not wanting to travel due to vaccine requirements or general health concerns are not covered under a standard cancellation policy. In other words, a traveler would not be reimbursed if any of these COVID-related things caused them to cancel their trip.

Get insurance if you’re driving for a holiday vacation, too

“Travel insurance is a wise choice even for vacations that are within driving distance,” says Berkshire Hathaway’s Mueller. If you opt for a comprehensive travel insurance plan, you can protect a portion of your non-refundable hotel, resort, or rental-property deposits if forced to cancel for a covered reason. Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection’s ExactCare Lite plan is designed specifically for road-tripping vacationers and includes valuable coverages such as up to $500 in trip cancellation, $750 in trip interruption, and medical-expense and medical-evacuation protection to cover expenses incurred when traveling outside of your medical network.

Book your airport taxi in advance

“In many places, availability for rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are reduced or have very long wait times,” says TripSavvy’s Fergus. Consider using an app’s book-in-advance feature to schedule your pick up at your destination or your ride home from the airport. “You’ll have a (mostly) guaranteed ride that you can always reschedule should your travel plans change,” says Fergus.

Download travel apps

Speaking of rideshare apps, before you head to the airport, load up your mobile phone with helpful travel apps, including the one for your airline so you can follow flight schedules and get quick booking help. Other apps to download: a hotel booking option, a car rental company option, and a GPS option. While you’re at it, add YELP for restaurant options and a weather option, as well. The right road trip apps will also come in handy for everything from booking last-minute hotel stays to getting gas to finding the best restaurant on your route. In short, all of these will turn your phone into a virtual travel agent in an emergency.

Hosting family and friends for the holidays this year? Find decor inspiration, gift ideas, hosting tips, and more here.

Sources:

Popular Videos

Melissa Klurman
Melissa Klurman is a freelance travel writer and editor with more than 27 years experience who reports on travel trends around the planet for Reader's Digest. Winner of a Lowell Thomas Gold Award for excellence in travel writing, she started her career as an editor at both Frommer’s and Fodor’s travel guides, then went on to write about travel for many publications including Family Traveller, Parents, and Working Mother magazines. More recently she has been a contributing editor at Saveur, Islands, and Caribbean Travel and Life and a senior contributor at Travelocity. A New Jersey native, ice cream addict, and a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan, Klurman lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, son, and rescue dog.