Holiday travel is a necessity for many people who want to visit family and friends to celebrate traditions they’ve built around winter holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years. And even for people who don’t celebrate those holidays, they often have vacation time around the holidays and it’s a good opportunity for them to take a much-needed break.
With so many people looking to get out of town during the winter months, holiday travel can be a bit more complicated than usual. Expensive tickets, crowds, and winter storms are all factors travelers have to keep in mind as they navigate this season. We asked travel experts and travelers about their favorite tips and hacks to keep winter travel as stress-free and simple as possible.
Download your airline’s app
Make the most of technology to ease your experience. “Download and use your airline’s app. It’s usually the fastest way you’ll learn about your gate, any delays, connections and other good information,” Michelle Herrman, a travel writer, tells Mashable. Printing out tickets or using screenshots is good, but your airline’s app keeps everything you need to know or have someone scan in one place.
Buy the earliest flights of the day
The early bird gets the worm, and they’re also less likely to get their holiday flight canceled. So when buying flights, it might be tempting to get one later so you won’t have to wake up early, but it’s much safer to get that 6 AM or 5 AM departure. “Scheduling the first flight of the day is a great way to avoid flight delays. Studies show that the first flights of the day are more likely to leave on time, and arrive on time,” Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, tells Mashable.
In the case of a canceled flight, Klee says your chances of receiving a refund are high. But don’t try to fix it at the gate. “Airlines will typically try to reroute passengers to other airlines first. In this instance we recommend calling the airline’s customer support line directly to explore all your options, instead of waiting in long lines for gate agents to help,” he says.
Invest in TSA precheck and CLEAR
TSA Pre-Check and CLEAR are pricey services ($78 for TSA Pre-Check for five years and $189/year for CLEAR) but they really do work for their money, getting you through lines in record time and without the hassle of having to remove half your articles of clothing. If you’re trying to decide between getting TSA Pre-check or CLEAR, consider purchasing both. Devin Lowe, founder of the Black Trans Travel Fund, recommends both “because some airports only have one or the other.” Lowe continues, “Also CLEAR will get you to the front of the line but TSA PreCheck lets you keep your shoes and belt on, and lets you keep your laptop in your bag, whereas CLEAR does not.” And if you’re a frequent flier with airlines like United or Delta, you might qualify for a discount on CLEAR.
If you live close to the Canadian or Mexican borders, consider getting a NEXUS or SENTRI card for expedited border crossings and customs. It’s especially useful because many local airports in Mexico and Canada do not have CLEAR. Some have expressed discomfort with giving biometric data about their retinas and fingerprints to CLEAR, although the company maintains that your data is safe. Still, if privacy is a concern and you don’t want to purchase CLEAR, try getting to the airport very early so you don’t get caught up in lines.
Monitor flights for the best deal
There are lots of suggestions out there that try to guide people towards the best day or time of month to buy plane tickets. But the real key to getting the best deal is to look often and start looking early. The longer you wait and the less booking sites you check, the more you’re probably going to pay. “Make sure to secure your seats on a flight in advance, especially since holiday travel can be even more crowded and tricky, you want to leave as little as possible up to chance,” says Clarissa Laskey, freelance travel writer.
Ship gifts beforehand — or put them in your carry on
Even though you might always stuff your checked suitcases with wrapped gifts before visiting family and friends for the holidays, consider shipping them this year. It’ll cost money but depending on the weight of the items, it can be quite reasonable. But if your luggage is lost or damaged during your flight, it’s a lot harder to replace those items. You also might want to go gift shopping when you get to your destination or put the gifts in your carryon so they stay with you the whole time.
And try to only bring a carry-on
If you can manage to fit everything you need into a carryon suitcase, you’ll be grateful for the ease once you land. Waiting for your luggage during busy holidays is a pain and you’re more likely to lose your luggage the more crowded the airports and flights are. Eve Andrews, who lost her bag for eight days on her first trip to Europe in 2009 shortly after New Years, has never checked a bag since. “I said never again,” Andrews tells Mashable. “There are too many nightmare stories about checking a bag and zero nightmare stories about not having packed enough. I have never found a carry-on to be insufficient for what I need for even a three-week trip,” she continues.
Klee agrees. “The best way to ensure all luggage arrives safely to a traveler’s destination is to not check a bag. Packing light and carrying on is a great way to save money and have peace of mind knowing that your luggage will make it to your destination with you.”
Travel on the actual holiday
When I first heard this tip, it shocked me. I’d never even considered traveling on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day to be a possibility. But it makes perfect sense. Airports and roads are less likely to be crowded on the actual day of the holiday. If you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas Day but still need to travel around that time, it’s even easier to do this. This tip works best if you’re flexible about what time you want to arrive on the holiday, and you should also prepare for delays and cancellations. Winter storms are still prevalent this time of year!
Or maybe don’t travel on the actual holiday
But not everyone agrees that traveling on holidays is the best route. Some, like journalist Wudan Yan, like to avoid them all together. “Plane travel is already so unpleasant as is in my opinion and I do my best to reduce unnecessary stress. So not traveling near holidays is just a part of my MO,” she tells Mashable. Yan travels often for work, so when she’s jetting off near the holidays, she prefers to schedule flights at least two weeks before or after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years.