Here, T+L’s best tips on how to navigate crowded, delay-prone airports this season with your sanity (and schedule) intact.
Before you leave
Apply for PreCheck or Global Entry. If you’ve been getting tapped for PreCheck, the TSA’s expedited security program, without having registered for the program, be warned: the TSA is ending your free ride. But there’s a silver lining. PreCheck is now available in more than 150 airports, and signing up is easier than ever: the agency has created more than 300 enrollment centers both in cities and airports. All you need is a completed application (available at tsa.gov), $85, and a valid ID and proof of citizenship. Better yet: for $100, sign up for Global Entry, part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Trusted Traveler program (cbp.gov). You get access to fast-track lanes at U.S. customs, plus all the benefits of PreCheck. The registration process happens surprisingly quickly—we got our Global Entry clearances in less than two weeks.
Buy travel insurance. During a particularly bad winter, when storms are unrelenting, it’s possible to see cancelation rates of up to 5 percent. Stranded passengers face further difficulties when finding space on later flights. The lesson? Protect your travels by buying insurance with good trip-delay and cancellation coverage. You can compare and shop for policies at the websites Insuremytrip and Squaremouth. Both sites also include customer reviews. Or turn to Berskshire Hathaway’s AirCare: travel insurance that’s just for your flight. It rebooks missed connections automatically or gets you into the airport lounge during a long delay—the prices start at $34 for domestic flights.
Know your status. Signing up for flight alerts with your carrier is simply not enough. Use a service such as FlightStats or Flight+, and you’ll likely hear about a delay even before your carrier contacts you. Both apps also offer overall assessments of delays and cancellations at your departure and arrival airports—so you know what to expect.
Get a better seat. Stuck in the middle? Sign up for a free seat alert with Expertflyer.com, which lets you know when a coveted spot (aisle, window, exit row) becomes available. Having trouble keeping the family together without paying exorbitant fees? Itinerary manager TripIt Pro ($49 a year) will send you a message when a block of up to four seats opens up.
Embrace your inner early bird. Check in right at the beginning of the 24-hour window: not only will you have a better chance of switching to a good seat (that’s when airlines start releasing them) but you’ll also ensure that you don’t get bumped. Airlines often work off of a last in, first out principle when a flight is oversold, with exceptions for travelers in special circumstances and loyalty-program elites. And save yourself the stress of running through a crowded airport by arriving early—even if you have PreCheck.
Use a skycap. All it takes is a $2 tip (per suitcase) at the curbside baggage check to bypass the long drop-off lines inside. You can even pay for your checked bags there. Remember: don’t wrap any presents in your luggage, or you may find that TSA has taken off the paper to get a better look. And if you’re worried about losing your luggage, consider using a tracker such as Trakdot (from $49.99), which allows you to follow your bag’s progress on a smartphone.
Get happy. Your time at the airport can be enjoyed, rather than simply endured—especially with all the new amenities that hubs across the country are adding. Use GateGuru to locate stores, restaurants, and even spas around you.
Stay powered. Though airports are getting better about adding charging stations for mobile phones and other electronics, an open one can be hard to find, especially when delays hit. Bring a mobile charger, such as the pocket-size Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6000mAh, which can fully charge most phones twice before running out of juice.
Keep your carry-on to code. To keep your carry-on under the approved size limit for nearly any airline, stick to these standard dimensions: 22-by-14-by-9 inches. This will keep you from holding up the boarding process and paying a checked-bag fee at the gate.
Use all available resources. If your flight is canceled or delayed and you want to be rebooked quickly, get on the phone and in line at the airport. Struggling to get through on the toll-free number? Try dialing into the alternative-language line (and pleading to continue in English) or calling one of the airline’s international numbers.
Be your own advocate. When you need to rebook, help the airline agents help you by offering up alternate flights, routes, and even destinations: you could always rent a car and drive the rest of the way. (Trip insurance may cover the cost.) The FlightStats website has a great service that actually locates open seats on other flights. Though airlines are reluctant to rebook passengers on different carriers, it’s always worth a try.
Get comfortable. For $50, you can usually buy yourself a day pass for an airline lounge, which comes with free food, drinks, and Wi-Fi. Agents there may also be able to help untangle any travel hiccups you’re encountering. The LoungeBuddy app can help you locate nearby spaces and tell you how much they cost.
Make lemonade. Don’t settle for an airport hotel (or a spot on the floor) if you’re waylaid by a storm while in transit. You can usually find a stylish, well-priced last-minute room with the Hotel Tonight app or one of its many competitors, including Booking.com and Priceline.
Four Ways to Speed Along Your Road Trip:
Leave early—or day of. Can’t get out before the masses? Try leaving the morning of the holiday.
Have an alternate route mapped out. Though you can always map on the fly, it helps to know in advance which roads you can take should your preferred route get backed up.
Scout out delays or accidents en route with Google Maps or the Beat the Traffic app. Better yet, pay it forward by using Waze, where you (or your passenger) can add your own traffic updates for other drivers. Aside from slowdowns, Waze also keeps you posted if police cars are detected in the area, so you can keep an eye on your speedometer accordingly.
Save money on gas. Use the GasBuddy app to locate the stations around you with the lowest prices.