Air Travel

Your One-Stop Guide to Navigating Airport Chaos This Holiday Season

Experts share their tips on handling delays, ensuring your luggage arrives, and navigating crowded terminals.
Business Jet departing a snowy airfield
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There's no place like home for the holidays—but for many of us, getting there unfortunately requires a trip to the airport, and this year promises to be one of the busiest holiday travel seasons yet.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, a record-breaking number of passengers boarded planes on Sunday, November 26, with nearly 3 million people passing through security checkpoints—the highest one-day total in the TSA's history. There were hardly any flight cancellations, though, which bodes well for the December holidays.

But things are only predicted to get busier over Christmas and New Year's, with the American Automobile Association (AAA) predicting a record-breaking 7.5 million air travelers. Plus, there's a higher chance that snow and ice could bungle flight operations. Add it all together, and, well flyers should hope for the best but prepare for the worst, as they say.

Fortunately, there are a few easy strategies to prevent your well-earned break from turning into a travel nightmare. We asked air travel experts for their best tips on how to navigate flight chaos, from lost luggage to canceled flights.

How to avoid delays and cancellations

To be prepared for even the most dramatic cancellations and delays, you’ll want to have a backup plan before flight disruptions begin. If you still haven't bought your flights, “the ultimate hack is booking more than one trip,” says Gary Leff, an airline expert who covers the industry on his blog “View from the Wing.” Most major airlines no longer charge change fees—as long as you don’t book in basic economy. “Book the ticket you plan to fly, and then a second one on another airline for a few hours later. Assuming your first one goes off without a hitch, cancel the second ticket and use the credit for travel later,” Leff says. Be sure to note any expiration date on the voucher: some airlines’ credits but some do, according to Leff.

If you have abundant loyalty points, you could put them to use on this strategy, too. “An even better way to play this is to buy a ticket on one airline, and redeem miles for travel on another,” Leff says. “With most airlines there’s no longer even a fee to cancel and redeposit miles as long as you do it prior to [the] scheduled departure of your trip. So miles are a great way to have a backup flight already booked. And if you don’t need it, there’s frequently no cost to cancel.”

A less-excessive hack to decrease the odds of your flight being delayed is to book the earliest flight available. “Travel early in the day rather than later in the day,” Leff says. “Delays stack up; the later in the day you fly, the greater chance your flight will be delayed. Traveling earlier also increases the likelihood of same-day options to get where you’re going if your flight cancels or you misconnect.”

And on the subject of connecting flights: you should avoid layovers whenever possible. “For the most part, the best thing you can do is pay for a nonstop flight when available so you can just get where you're going with the least hassle,” says Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge, which offers airline assistance to travelers.

If you do have to connect, give yourself plenty of time between flights—at least 90 minutes is a good rule of thumb, according to The Vacationer. You’ll also want to choose your connecting airport wisely. “Avoid flying through hub cities likely to get snow over the holiday,” Leff says. “If your airline offers a weather waiver because of a forecast storm, consider using it and traveling earlier.”

In the case of inclement weather, many airlines will provide options in advance to reschedule your trip at no additional charge. “Most airlines have become very proactive at putting out weather waivers if a significant storm is coming,” Snyder says. “Make sure that you either book through a travel agent that monitors this or that the airline has your email address in your booking so that you'll receive notifications if a waiver is in place.”

Streamlining security

The security checkpoint is bound to be one of the more stressful stages of the airport journey. But there are a few ways to make the process simpler and bypass any long lines. “If you don't have TSA Precheck, get on it,” Snyder says. “That makes security so much easier, especially during the holidays when there are more inexperienced travelers flying.”

You could also sign up for a free Clear trial ahead of your flight. The trial lasts for two months and includes all of the benefits of the biometric fast pass (sometimes even letting you cut the TSA PreCheck security line ahead of PreCheck holders). The membership also covers any family members under 18 years old, free of charge. Unless you cancel before the two-month trial period is up, Clear will automatically charge your credit card the full annual membership fee: $189 for 12 months. There are usually Clear attendants at the airport security checkpoint who can sign you up for a free trial on the spot, but it's typically quicker to sign up in advance online.

A handful of airports—including Seattle-Tacoma, New York JFK, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Orlando, and other busy hubs—offer Reserve by Clear, a free service that allows travelers to book a time slot in the security line online before arriving at the airport. Simply input your flight information, choose your time, and submit your name (no membership required).

To see how busy the airport is likely to be on specific days and times, download the MyTSA app on your phone to view predictions based on historical data. The app also shows the current average wait time for security checkpoints across an airport’s terminals.

Solving luggage and boarding woes

Since every flight is likely to be crowded or completely sold out, you'll want to consider priority boarding to ease tension and secure overhead bin space. “If you’re traveling American Airlines, make sure to join their loyalty program—that alone gets you earlier boarding and you probably won’t have to gate check your carry on bag,” Leff says.

On Southwest and United, you can pay separately to add priority boarding to your ticket, which gets you on the plane before other economy passengers. On Delta, consider upgrading to Comfort Plus, which grants earlier boarding and dedicated bin space.

To avoid fighting for carry-on space or checking your bag and crossing your fingers it doesn't get lost, shipping your luggage in advance can circumvent airport-associated risks entirely. “Consider using services like Luggage Free or Luggage Forward to ship your larger and oversized luggage to your destination,” says Michael Holtz, a travel specialist with SmartFlyer.

What to do if your holiday flight is canceled

Cancellations usually mean waiting hours for the attention of already-swamped ticketing agents to get on the next flight out. To avoid putting all your eggs in one basket, Snyder advises using every customer service avenue available. “If you're at the airport when a flight cancels, get in line,” he says. “At the same time, get on the phone with the airline, try the Twitter/X team, go online to the airline website, and even try the airline app. Wherever you get help first, that's the best.”

Remember that if the airline you booked with doesn’t have any desirable flights, you can try asking if they’ll book you with another carrier—but this doesn’t always work. “Some airlines will book you on other airlines while some won't,” Snyder says. “It can also depend upon why the first flight is delayed or canceled. It can never hurt to ask.”

Travelers can check which airlines are open to endorsing tickets to another carrier on the DOT’s cancellations page, according to Leff. “But the other airline has to have seats available to put you on, and during the holidays seats can be scarce,” he says.

When flights get really snarled due to weather, even putting the smallest amount of distance between you and the storm is an improvement. “When there’s bad weather you want to treat it like the zombie apocalypse and keep moving,” Leff says. “Get closer to your destination. Get out of the zone of weather. Take flights that push you away from where the problem is even if it means connecting and traveling out of your way.”

If you get stuck, remember that the right travel rewards credit card could hold some useful benefits, if you used it to buy your airline tickets. “Choose one that has trip delay and baggage delay coverage that can pick up expenses you incur if you’re forced to overnight somewhere during your journey, or to buy things while your bags are lost,” Leff says.