Here's how to navigate the holiday travel season this year.
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The holidays are a notoriously stressful time to travel, with jam-packed airports, congested roads, and increased fares across the board, from hotel bookings to rental cars. As if that weren't already enough, the pandemic — of course — adds an additional layer of logistical stress to holiday travel. If you're traveling outside the country, you'll have to factor in testing, vaccination, and quarantine requirements. And even if you're traveling within the U.S., there are safety precautions to consider.

Flight attendants wearing protective masks walk through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta
Credit: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Fortunately, we've gathered some advice for putting together the best holiday trip possible. To help you navigate 2021 holiday travel, we spoke with seven globetrotters on how to make the most of your time off this winter. Here are their expert-approved tips.

Double check admission hours for attractions.

Those visiting popular destinations during the holidays should check whether attractions are open or have special hours of operation, according to Rick Steves, the travel writer and television host known for his PBS documentary series, Rick Steves' Europe.

"Your guidebook will say it's open Tuesday through Sunday, closed on Monday on these hours, but the days around Christmas might be different," Steves said. "If a particular sight is important to you, be sure to confirm that it's open on the day you hope to see it," he added, also suggesting visitors make reservations for the attraction when applicable.

Research COVID-19 restrictions before booking — and again before traveling.

If there's one thing we know about COVID-19 travel restrictions, it's that they're subject to change. "Now that destinations are open and people are traveling again, we need to remember that COVID restrictions may still remain in place. It's crucial that visitors do their part by researching and following each country's guidelines as they can vary," Paul Gauger, VisitBritain's senior vice president of the Americas, said.

Gauger recommends planning further in advance than you might think and checking in with experts, like travel advisors, to learn more about the restrictions you'll need to follow for your chosen destination.

Be a contrarian traveler.

Travelers wearing face masks arrive at Orlando International Airport on the day before Christmas
Credit: Paul Hennessy/Getty Images

Consider visiting places that other people rarely visit, as Matthew Kepnes, travel blogger and author of "How to Travel the World on $50 a Day," suggested.

"When you think about Christmas and New Year's, everyone wants to go someplace warm, so you tend to see higher prices in Florida, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii," Kepnes said. "So I like to think… go where people don't go. Maybe Europe. If you want some warm weather, then say Italy, Greece, Spain," he added, noting the potential for cheaper airfare.

"Everyone goes to Costa Rica and Nicaragua — why not go to Belize or maybe Guatemala?" Kepnes said. "My favorite places to go during the holiday season are where everybody does not go."

Be kind to airline and airport staff.

You may be on vacation during the holidays, but the people working to ensure you arrive at your destination are still on the clock, noted Kate McCulley, a travel journalist who runs the Adventurous Kate blog. Treating them with respect can increase your chances of a pleasurable trip at a time when most people are stressed out, she said.

"They always receive disproportionate anger from people nearby, and it can really brighten someone's day just to be nice," McCulley explained. "It's always nice to bring, say, a bag of candy bars or something for the airline staff. If you do that, they will take care of you beautifully."

Bring a spare change of clothes in your carry-on.

The holidays mean crowded airports, and crowded airports mean more bags for workers to check, and therefore, more room for error, said Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods. He suggested you be prepared for the worst possible outcome, just in case.

"I think lost bags on busier travel days of the year have a 50% increase over the mean, so the chances that you're going to get a lost bag are greater on your Christmas trip than on your March trip," Zimmern said. "I always make sure I have a change of clothes."

Prepare yourself for stress — and accept that things can go wrong.

You can follow all of the tips above and make the necessary preparations for holiday travel, but the most important advice, according to CNN Business Traveller host Richard Quest, is coming to terms with the fact that things might go wrong no matter how much you try.

"Just be ready, and when it happens, you'll be able to sit there smiling sweetly," Quest said. "When you travel on Christmas, for you as the traveler — whether you're in 1A or 39D — there is a mental state that you have to put yourself in, that you're traveling at the busiest time of the year and you're going to take whatever comes your way."

"Become zen-like. Do not allow little things to fluster you," Quest added. "The flight is delayed, the crew is late, you may not get the seat you want, the last chicken sandwich may have gone, the movie may not work, but you will at least be sitting there humming along to yourself a little bit happier."

Take advantage of "dead weeks" for discounted airfare.

Holiday travel doesn't need to be during the holidays, per se. If you're on a budget, consider celebrating away from home at the start of the new year (or even after Thanksgiving).

"There are two weeks in the travel industry every year that are known as 'dead weeks,'" explained travel journalist Peter Greenberg. "It's the week immediately after Thanksgiving and the week immediately after New Year's. People don't travel the week after Thanksgiving because they're recovering from their obligatory, dysfunctional family get-together, and they don't travel the week after New Year's because they're simply recovering."

"If you want to do yourself a big favor, travel starting Jan. 3 and take that week off because nobody's traveling. You'll own it — you can celebrate the new year on your terms, on your budget, with your friends, and not have to mortgage your house," Greenberg said, adding that the "dead weeks" apply to airlines all over the world.