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The 10 Holiday Travel Tips Every Smart Traveler Should Memorize

If you're flying anywhere over the Thanksgiving to New Year's stretch this year, we've got the sanity savers you need to get to your destination without flying off the deep end.

Book early

Follow the golden rules for stress-free air travel. First things first, say the travel experts at AAA, “Book early for the best deals and availability on hotels, airfare, and car rentals.” How much will you save? According to Expedia, last-minute bookers pay 15 percent more than travelers who reserve in advance.


Work with a travel agent

Travel agents often have access to extra amenities and added benefits to plan a magical holiday getaway and help you avoid travel mistakes, according to AAA. They can also be a tremendous help in the event something changes or goes wrong on your trip. In other words: If your flight is delayed or canceled, you’ll have a pro in your corner solving issues for you, and it won’t cost you an extra dime for their expert help and conflict resolution.


Be flexible

If your schedule permits, avoid peak travel days. For Thanksgiving, those tend to be the Tuesday and Wednesday immediately before and the Sunday after. Since Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, SmarterTravel predicts that the Friday and Saturday before, as well as the day after, will be the busiest holiday travel days this year. 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 light and prices are low. Check out these simple tips for dealing with the most awkward holiday situations.


Watch the weather

Winter holidays often mean rain, sleet, snow, an ice, which brings air delays exactly when you’re getting ready to fly. Protect your plans by watching the weather reports in advance of your trip. Ahead of a major weather event or storm, airlines typically waive all change fees and 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.

AirportOlena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

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 offer additional seating and lower prices than the larger hub airport. Find out our full ranking of the best and worst airports for holiday travel.

PhoneMaria Savenko/Shutterstock

Download travel apps

Before you head to the airport, load up your mobile phone with helpful travel apps, including the one for your airline to follow flight schedules and for quick booking help. Other apps to download: a hotel booking option in case you’re stuck at your destination or need to book an airport hotel, a car rental company option, and airport maps. While you’re at it, add YELP for restaurant options, LYFT for car service, and a weather option as well. All will turn your phone into a virtual travel agent in an emergency. Learn some common reasons the holidays are so dang stressful in the first place.

Security-checkThaspol Sangsee/Shutterstock

Ace 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 $85 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 pumpkin pie can fly? Check out the TSA’s What Can I Bring page. (Spoiler alert: They’re both fine.)

packingArt Photo/Shutterstock

Pack smart

Never pack anything you can’t live without in your checked baggage; medicine, mobile phone, glasses, and baby binkies are all items that should always be in your carry-on bag. If you can’t live without it, keep it close. While you’re at it, bring snacks from home in case you’re stuck on the tarmac for a prolonged period of time. And don’t forget to carry on chargers for cell phones and portable electronics; they won’t do you any good if you can’t turn them on. Check out these simple tips to help you deal with holiday season stress.

AirportJaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

Have a plan for delays and cancellations

There are a few things you want to do simultaneously if your flight is extremely delayed or canceled. First, be ready to multitask: Get in line to talk to a gate agent, but also try using the airline app you downloaded to make changes on your own. Traveling with a buddy? Have them try to get through on the carrier’s 800 number as well. Sometimes you’ll get through faster on the phone than you will in person, and the reverse can be true too. No one responding at any of these three? Try tweeting your problem to the airline’s official Twitter handle; these social media accounts are often staffed with troubleshooters who can put you in touch with the correct department for help. (Note, though, that if a whole plane is tweeting at the same time, this will not be your fastest route to help.)

If it looks like it is going to be a while, and you don’t have family or friends nearby to stay with, use your hotel app to book a hotel as close to the airport as you can, so you can get back in a hurry if you score a spot on another flight.

Note: All of the above work best if you’ve taken only carry-on luggage and don’t have to worry about checked bags, so think about packing light this holiday season.

PackingSyda Productions/Shutterstock

Pack some patience

The holiday season is one of the busiest times of year for travel, so expect heavy crowds and allow plenty of time to get to your destination safely, says AAA. Happy holidays! Read on for more holiday travel tips airlines don’t want you to know.

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.

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