Slow-moving airport security lines. Squeezing through cramped airport terminals. Settling sibling shouting matches in the back seat while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It's no secret that crowds, prices and stress levels soar during the hectic travel period, testing the patience of even the most seasoned travelers. In fact, AAA Travel estimates 48.7 million Americans will travel a minimum of 50 miles from home over the holiday, nearly a 2 percent uptick from 2015 and the greatest spike over the Thanksgiving travel period since 2007. To avoid feeling frazzled during the holiday rush, use these pro hacks to dodge common travel headaches, save time and optimize comfort (and keep your sanity intact) on your way home this holiday.
Embrace Your Inner Early Bird
Checking in early (24 hours ahead of departure) isn't just a time-saver, it's a way to reduce your chances of getting bumped from your flight. Plus, you'll need to account for heightened security traffic and heavy crowds at popular airports across the country. Plan to arrive 45 minutes earlier than usual to navigate unexpected delays and stagnant security lines, advises Keith Nowak, director of Communications at Travelocity. He also suggests steering clear of the most crowded hubs (think: Los Angeles International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport), where you may encounter "the longest security lines, most crowded concession areas and the fewest available parking spaces." Another simple way to beat the rush: Fly in the morning or late at night, and if possible, steer clear of traveling on the Wednesday before and Sunday after, typically the most popular Thanksgiving travel days, he adds.
Don't Leave Home Without the Right Tools
Keeping your airline's app in your back pocket is an easy way to avoid anxiety-inducing situations, explains Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com. Carrying your airport's app "can be particularly useful, as many offer real-time updates on delays and cancellations," he adds. Another must-have item for sharing your itinerary with friends and family members: Google's new Trips app, says Robert Birge, chief marketing officer of Lola, a personal chat-based travel service available via smartphone that helps research and book flights and hotels. He also points to Waze, Google Maps and luggage trackers like LugLoc as essential travel tools. If it's a top priority to breeze through security, Birge also suggests enrolling in TSA PreCheck. "Even these [PreCheck] lines are getting long, but it's still much faster and involves less unpacking," he says.
And if you're planning to drive to grandma's house this Thanksgiving, rely on social media. "We like to keep on top of Twitter when road tripping. Local police, even in some smaller towns, use Twitter for real-time updates," Klee says.
Unwind in the Airport Lounge
If you find yourself stalled at the airport or your itinerary includes a lengthy layover, consider splurging for access to a business lounge. "Many major airlines have one-day passes (approximately $50) where you'll have access to a variety of amenities," Nowak explains, highlighting snacks, high-speed internet and newspapers as top perks. He points to LoungeBuddy.com as a helpful tool for finding lounges based on your desired amenities.
Keep Kids Entertained
If you're traveling with youngsters, finding distractions while in transit is essential. "Get a carry-on for your toddlers, and use it for a few weeks before. If they don't already use a backpack for school, get them one – or a kids roller. First, it gives them something to do, but more importantly you can pack their toys and snacks in their bag," Birge says. Also, make sure to stock up on snacks and their favorite TV shows and videos on your phone and tablet before leaving home, he says. And remember to bring along a foldable stroller if you're traveling with toddlers. "Don't underestimate how far you walk in many airports, and how tiring that can be for little 4-year-old legs," he cautions.
Klee also suggests packing along travel-friendly toys such as stuffed animals for little globetrotters. If you're traveling with small children, bring along "something chewy to combat the cabin pressure changes that can put too much pressure on little ears," Klee adds.
Prepare to Pivot Your Plans
Remember, Thanksgiving is a popular time for overbooked flights, says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. "You may be offered a voucher to travel on a later flight or the next day if you're bumped from a flight. Don't take it." Instead, accept cash, Hobica advises. Depending on the delay, you may be able to receive up to $1,350 in compensation, he explains. Practice patience if your plans are detoured. "If your flight is severely delayed or canceled and you'll miss grandpa carving the bird, remember that you can simply cancel the entire trip and get a refund of your airfare," Hobica explains.
Birge also recommends mentally preparing yourself should your plans go awry. "You don't want to be 'that guy' that screams at the poor customer service desk [agent]," he says. If you're planning to turn to a travel agent, "have their number handy," he says. And if you're more of a do-it-yourselfer, "use Google for finding flight alternatives," Birge says. "You can cancel any flight booking within 24 hours, so don't wait." And if you need alternative lodging on the fly, he points to HotelTonight as a helpful tool to secure last-minute accommodations at a discount.
Consider Alternative Parking Arrangements
If you're planning to drive to the airport, you may encounter jampacked lots, Hobica explains. He advises looking at "cheaper off-airport parking services" as an alternative or taking a taxi. While some airports, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, allow you to secure parking reservations in advance, you may be better off taking public transit or using a ride-sharing service. Nowak also suggests renting a car to "save your family some time and effort of having to pick you up."
Paring down your suitcase can translate to a smooth and speedy security screening. Make sure you have your photo ID, phone charger and travel documents within easy reach, and stay organized before going through security, Klee cautions. Hobica echoes these sentiments: "One of the main causes of airport TSA delays is people forgetting to take cellphones and other metal objects out of pockets. Put all these things in your carry-on bag before you leave for the airport." Birge suggests leaving as many devices – including your laptop and your Kindle – as possible at home. And to maximize storage, "Roll your clothes; don't fold," he adds.
Nowak recommends sporting your bulkiest winter outerwear and stowing away light clothes in your suitcase. And if you're planning to bring your host a gift or a heavy item, consider shipping these presents rather than taking up limited suitcase space or paying a steep fee for oversized luggage, he adds.
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