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Holiday travel chaos is coming: How to handle it

(NerdWallet) – The December holiday travel season is rarely easy for travelers, but this year could prove particularly dicey. Airlines are still short on pilots and planes, and passenger traffic is predicted to nearly reach pre-pandemic levels. 

The Transportation Security Administration screened 2.5 million passengers on the Sunday after Thanksgiving this year — the most on a single day in November since 2019. And data from Hopper, a travel booking platform, suggests that 18% more passengers could depart from domestic airports from Dec. 18 through Dec. 26 this year than did last year. 

Combine surging demand with struggling supply, add a dash of the usual winter weather, and what do you have? A frothy cup of holiday travel chaos. Yet savvy travelers can still avoid the worst disruptions. 

Here’s how. 

If you’re already booked: Fly like a pro

If you’re like most travelers, you’ve already booked your travel by now, which means avoiding headaches from disruptions is more about preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. 

  • You can probably still add trip insurance. Generally, you don’t have to buy certain types of trip insurance at the same time as your bookings, meaning you could still add protection for things like weather disruptions or health care costs. 
  • Avoid checked luggage if you can. It’s hard enough to get you and potentially your family from point A to point B, and checked luggage offers one more point of failure. Can you ship those gifts instead of bringing them in a suitcase? 
  • Check the status of your flight before you leave home. Yes, it’s a basic step, but it can be easy to forget in the rush to get out the door. Airlines are pretty good about notifying customers proactively about delays these days, but it’s still worth checking. 
  • Pack for disruptions. Some extra food, a pillow and some warm comfy clothes can go a long way if you end up stuck in the airport for hours.

You don’t have to go into full-on prepper mode, packing enough freeze-dried food to survive a zombie apocalypse at LAX. But it may be wise to assume that at least one leg of a round-trip flight will experience a hiccup during peak travel dates. Prepare accordingly. 

If you’ve waited until the last minute: Book wisely

Waited until now to book? You might not have many affordable flight options left, but there are still some guidelines to follow to avoid disruptions. 

  • Book direct flights when possible. The more legs an itinerary has, the more points where it can get messed up. 
  • Choose a reliable airline. A recent analysis by NerdWallet found that Hawaiian, Delta and Alaska airlines had the best overall operation rating, while Frontier, Spirit and JetBlue had the worst. 
  • Avoid stopovers in wintry cities. Have the choice to fly through either Denver or Dallas? In December, it might make sense to opt for warmer stopover airports. And check the forecast. 

Struggling to find an affordable option at the last minute? Consider using points and miles, which can offer outsized value when cash fares are high. 

Holiday travel or not: Skip the lines

Nothing says Yuletide season like long, snaking security lines at the airport. These queues can offer more than a hassle — they can make the difference between a smooth trip and a missed flight. Yet many of the worst lines when traveling can be skipped these days. 

  • Clear, a private membership service, lets you skip the longest part of the line using biometrics like fingerprints. It’s not cheap, but the cost can be reduced significantly with some credit card perks and other discounts. 
  • It might be too late to sign up for TSA PreCheck this year, but it’s not too late to renew your membership if it has lapsed. 
  • Many rental car programs offer free ways to skip the line and pick your car up directly. Signing up for their rewards program usually unlocks this feature, which can be especially time-saving during the holidays. 
  • Checking out of hotels without waiting in line has been possible for a while, but now apps and elite status perks make it easier to also check in without the wait.

If you can’t skip the lines, make sure to budget them into your schedule. Give yourself at least an extra 45 minutes to get through security, especially when traveling during busy times at busy airports. Hopper has listed the airports expected to be busiest, along with their peak time of day. 

Airport Expected passenger traffic Busiest time to fly
Atlanta (ATL) 1,739,502. Morning 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Denver (DEN) 1,222,646. Morning 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) 1,195,045. Morning 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Los Angeles (LAX) 1,064,324. Morning 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Las Vegas (LAS) 944,238. Early Afternoon 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Orlando (MCO) 930,859. Evening 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) 901,922. Evening 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Phoenix (PHX). 878,756. Morning 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
New York City (JFK) 848,475. Evening 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Miami (MIA) 815,822. Evening 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Keep (relatively) calm

Taking the steps you can, like minimizing checked baggage and giving yourself plenty of time to get through security, can help avoid most of the worst aspects of holiday travel chaos. But you can only do so much. 

Almost all air travel disruptions are caused by something completely out of the passenger’s control, whether it’s weather or cascading airline cancellations. Keeping this in mind can help reduce some of the stress if and when things do go awry. 

Plus, once you finally get settled with your family, you might look back on your time stuck on the tarmac as a period of relative calm. 

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