Holiday Travel Guide: 12 Tips for Navigating Airports

From knowing the latest security rules to bypassing long lines, here are 12 tips to save your sanity at the airport this holiday.

Long line of people with suitcases at the airport.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you've ever flown around the holidays before, you know what you're in for: long lines, massive delays, lost luggage, screaming children — and that's just your ride to the airport.

But seriously, time spent in an airport terminal over the busiest travel weeks of the year is enough to turn the jolliest elf into a grinch. Although many situations are simply out of your control, you can even out potential bumps and make your experience go a bit smoother with these 12 tips.

1. Minimize delays

If you can help it, fly in the morning before the airport gets bogged down with a day's worth of delays and problems. And if you cannot take a direct flight, try to arrange your connecting flight through a hub less likely to experience weather delays — for example, Dallas-Fort Worth instead of Chicago.

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You’ve got a 30% less chance of getting a long delay or cancellation if you go out in the morning according to Frommer's. And flying early means you'll probably encounter less traffic on the way to the airport. 

2. Pack smart

With most major airlines charging you extra to check bags now, be mindful of how much you pack. And when packing your luggage and carry-on bag, stay on top of the latest rules by checking before you fly. 

Passengers, for example, are allowed to bring liquids, gels and aerosols in their carry-on bag, but the containers must be 3.4 ounces or less, and all must be carried in a single quart-sized zip-top plastic bag. You can bring prescription medications and baby formula in excess of 3.4 ounces, but they are subject to further inspection. Among other prohibited items: knives and razor blades (safety razors are okay), and snow globes.

Also, don't wrap gifts. Security may need to unwrap the present, even if it's packed in your luggage. To be on the safe side, mail your gifts instead. The U.S. Postal Service is usually the cheapest option.

If you're traveling out of the country — even to Mexico or Canada — you need to bring a passport to get back in the U.S. And please remember not to pack your wallet, keys or cell phone in your checked luggage — trust us.

3. Reserve a parking spot

Long-term parking lots fill up quickly over the holidays, so make reservations as soon as possible. You can check on the specific airport website or use a site such They offer discounts and have live agents to assist you. Planning ahead also gives you time to search online for coupons and promotions. 

4. Arrive early

Airlines are notorious for overbooking. The earlier you check-in and get your boarding pass, the less likely you are to get bumped from your flight. You can learn more about your rights as a passenger from the Department of Transportation's Consumer Guide to Air Travel. Plus, arriving early will give you time to navigate the parking lot and make your way through crowded security checkpoints.

5. Bypass the check-in line

Most major airlines have self-check-in kiosks, which, from our experience, rarely have a line. If you have purchased a ticket online, you can use a self-service machine at the airport to verify your ID (bring the credit card you used to book the tickets), check in, get a seat assignment and print a boarding pass. And many airlines even have a live attendant on-hand to assist you in checking luggage.

We're also fans of checking bags at the curb with the skycap. But you'll have to pay extra — typically $2 to $5 per bag. Kiosks are free. Now if only there was a way to bypass the mile-long security line.

6. Breeze through security

Sorry, you can't skip this line altogether, but you can keep things moving and make sure you don't get hung up here by being prepared. Before you reach the front of the line, take off your coat and shoes. Remove children from strollers and carriers. And if the security checkpoint will cut you off from airport shops and eateries, make sure you have all the sustenance you need so you won't have to go through the line again.

If you haven't enrolled in TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, you should check it out. With a TSA PreCheck membership, you can drastically reduce the time spent waiting in the security line. And you won’t have to worry about removing your shoes, electronics, belt or jacket when being screened. A five year PreCheck membership costs $78 and the Global Entry option costs $100 and includes TSA PreCheck benefits.

7. Know the magic numbers

In case of a cancelled flight, make sure you have the airline's 800-number handy — better yet, program it into your phone ahead of time. While you're standing in the re-ticketing line, you might get through to a representative faster on the phone.

It's also a good idea to have the contact information for your ride home — whether a friend or relative, shuttle service or car rental — to keep them informed of your estimated time of arrival.

8. Don't pre-board with kids

Traveling with tots? If the airline allows families with small children to board first, don't do it! That just means you have to keep your children quiet, entertained and happy strapped into an uncomfortable seat on a cramped airplane even longer. Give your little one as much time as possible to get his or her wiggles out before getting on board. Not only will you save a sliver of your sanity, but your fellow passengers will thank you as well. 

9. Bring plenty of entertainment

Layovers, delays, cancellations — you'll probably have plenty of time to kill at the airport, so plan accordingly. Just make sure your source of entertainment fits easily into your carry-on.

Bring a good book, your latest issue of Kiplinger's magazine, your tablet, iPad or a laptop computer loaded with movies and games for diversion. If you're traveling with someone, bring a deck of cards or Trivial Pursuit questions to occupy your time. Heck, use the time to draft your family Christmas newsletter or write holiday greeting cards. Think of it as time to relax, not to stress out. After all, how often do you get several hours to yourself? And speaking of ways to unwind...

10. Check into an airport spa

Instead of killing time at the newsstand or foraging through the overpriced food court, how about getting a head rub, foot rub, full-body massage, manicure, pedicure or facial? Airport spas are popping up nationwide and could be just the ticket to relieve your holiday travel stress. Be Relax and XpresSpa are a few airport spas you'll find in Boston, Dallas, Nashville, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh, Sacramento and Seattle, among other locations.

11. Deck your bags

No boughs of holly necessary, but you can simplify the luggage free-for-all by making your suitcase easy to spot at the carousel. You'll also decrease the odds of someone mistaking your bag for theirs. For example, tie a festive bow around the handle, use a distinctive luggage tag, or bring a brightly colored suitcase to stand out from the sea of blacks, blues and greens.

12. Look beyond yourself

You may not have peace on the plane, but you can bring good will toward men. Cheesy as it sounds, you'll no doubt brighten your flying experience by looking for ways to help frazzled travelers wherever you can.

See that mom en route to her gate struggling to push a stroller, carry a car seat and rein in a rambunctious toddler? Offer to carry the car seat for her. Flight delayed? Buy a box of doughnuts to share with fellow travelers in your seating area. See a couple of kids bored out of their minds? Break out a deck of cards for a raucous game of Crazy 8s or Go Fish.

Focus on the needs of others instead of your own miserable situation, and you'll lift your spirit — as well as theirs. After all, isn't that what the holidays are all about?

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Erin Burt
Contributing Editor,
With contributions from