It's happening: The holiday travel surge is coming for Christmas.
The days of empty airports and planes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic are long gone as Americans return to the skies to visit friends and family for the holidays. It happened over Thanksgiving, which set record highs for air travel since the start of the pandemic. Now, TSA and the airlines are bracing for another surge for Christmas and New Year's Eve starting this weekend.
The travel planning app TripIt's numbers show that domestic and international flights will more than triple last year's volume. The TSA released figures projecting the Christmas travel surge will fall just short of the records set last month, but airlines like Delta are still anticipating they'll handle nearly 8 million passengers between today and Jan. 3.
That's good news for the battered travel industry … but maybe not for travelers as long lines and headaches return to the air travel experience. And the recent string of mass flight cancellations still looms over holiday travel, putting Americans on edge about the potential for delayed or canceled flights.
But it doesn’t have to be miserable. Follow our tips to make it home for presents unscathed this year.
Avoid the Busiest Days
Even during the holidays, your home airport won’t be jam-packed every day. But a few days stick out. Just as during any time, weekends tend to be the busiest.
Historical trends suggest that the days before and after Christmas and New Year's are among the worst. That makes sense: Travelers are heading home for the holidays, returning home, or making way to their New Year's Eve destinations. The TSA expects that the holiday surge will peak before Christmas next Thursday, Dec. 23 and again on Monday, Jan. 3.
TripIt's booking data also reveals a few other busy travel days: Next Wednesday, Dec. 22 as well as the following Sunday, Dec. 26, and that Monday, Dec. 27.
So plan accordingly if you want to avoid the crowds and long lines at airport security. Flying on off-peak days is key to a smoother travel experience.
Be Prepared for Delays & Cancellations
Hopefully, everything will go smoothly for airlines over the next few weeks. Americans lucked out over Thanksgiving, as the weather nationwide cooperated with clear skies to get travelers from point A to point B on time.
But we may not be so lucky this time around. It's better to hope for the best and prepare for the worst given the state of the industry and what we've seen over the last few months. Airlines can't seem to stop canceling flights by the thousands.
With any luck, airlines have learned their lesson after American Airlines melted down a few weeks back. Before that, it was Southwest canceling 2,000-plus flights. Oh, and then there was the major Spirit Airlines failure over the summer. And even reliable Delta Air Lines had issues over last Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Here's the problem: Airlines are stretched too thin. With travel on the upswing heading into the holidays, airlines that downsized during the pandemic suddenly don't have the capacity to handle a surge of travelers when a storm hits or something else goes wrong. That's a recipe for another possible round of mass cancellations this holiday season.
So what can travelers do if things fall apart and flights get canceled?
- Don't panic. Monitor your flights and the news in the days leading up to your travels to make sure things are going smoothly. If your airline is canceling flights a day or two, it's probably a safe bet that it'll spill over. But if your flight does get canceled, be kind to airline employees trying to help you – it's not their fault.
- Research some backup flights. Have a backup plan in place for some alternate flights you could switch to in case yours gets canceled. That could even include a flight with a different airline.
- Contact your airline – in more ways than one. Don't just sit in the long line at the gate or check-in desk. Call up your airline while you wait and slide into their DMs on social media, too. Get as many irons in the fire as you can.
- Know your rights. If an airline cancels (or significantly changes) your flight for any reason other than weather, they owe you a refund. You may need to ask for it, but the airline can't simply saddle you with a voucher for future travel. Use that money to rebook a last-minute flight to get where you need to go or try again another time.
Pack in Just a Carry-On Bag
Getting to the airport early is one of the necessary evils of air travel. It only gets worse during the holidays.
Skip the lines to check a bag or grab it from the baggage claim. Pack in just a carry-on. We encourage all readers to travel with only carry-on luggage, no matter the season. It’s cheaper, faster, and frees you of the mental weight of keeping track of more things – or the possibility of the airline losing your bag.
But there’s no time it pays off more than when you can walk from the curb directly to the TSA security checkpoint as holiday travelers line up to check a bag. Travel with a carry-on, and there’s one less line you need to wait in.
In fact, that's one of our biggest tips for traveling during the pandemic. As business travelers stay home and leisure travelers check a bag or two, bag drops and baggage carousels are where you'll see some of the largest lines throughout the entire airport.
Need a new carry-on bag? Read up on five of our favorite bags out there.
Arrive Early, Research TSA Wait Times
Don’t think you can waltz into the airport with 25 minutes until departure. Now more than ever, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Airport security checkpoints inevitably get backed up during peak holiday travel periods. And while it seems that the TSA has escaped a mass worker shortage due to unvaccinated agents – heading into Thanksgiving, the agency said 93% of its workforce was vaccinated as of Monday, which was up from just 60% a month prior – long lines are the norm even in the best of times.
So give yourself more time this holiday season. To be on the safe side, add at least 30-45 minutes to your typical airport routine. If you're forced to fly on a peak travel day, arrive 2 hours or maybe even 2 1/2 hours before your flight.
Here's a look at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) this week, where standard security lines were taking 30-plus minutes. Even having TSA PreCheck or CLEAR is not a guarantee for a speedy trip through security.
Want a sneak peek at what’s ahead for you at the TSA checkpoint? Some airports display the current wait times on their website. Otherwise, download the MyTSA app to check TSA wait times at your home airport before you make your way there. The app will even let you know when it expects wait times to peak throughout the day with a handy chart.
Get TSA PreCheck or CLEAR
Getting through airport security can be a headache even on a slow day. Mix in holiday crowds, and it can be a nightmare. It doesn’t have to be.
A pair of trusted traveler programs can help you skip the lines at security. The first and most popular option is TSA PreCheck, a government-run security program that gets you in a shorter, dedicated queue at the airport. You get to keep your shoes, belt and a light jacket on. No need to take your laptop or carry-on approved liquids out of your bag, either. It makes the entire process far less stressful. After your first trip through security with PreCheck, you'll wonder why you didn't get it sooner.
PreCheck costs $85 for a five-year membership. But you might want to consider a different program: You get PreCheck with Global Entry, the trusted traveler program that helps you get through immigration faster when returning to the United States. At $100 for five years of both programs, it makes Global Entry a two-for-one – and a no-brainer.
Even better: You can get it for free. A handful of popular travel credit cards cover the fees for either Global Entry or PreCheck. Just pay for your application with one of these cards and voila: The credit kicks in automatically to cover the entire cost.
Another option is CLEAR, an independent trusted traveler program involving both fingerprints and a retinal scan. You can enroll online and finalize your membership at the airport. If you frequently depart from a Delta hub city – like Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), Detroit (DTW) or Atlanta (ATL) – or United hubs of Denver (DEN), Newark (EWR), or Washington, D.C.-Dulles (IAD), CLEAR is easily worth a look.
Read our CLEAR review and see if it's worth it for you!
But CLEAR and TSA PreCheck aren't synonymous. CLEAR cuts you to the front of the security lines, while PreCheck gets you into the designated lane. That makes CLEAR and PreCheck a powerful combo to get through the line as fast as possible.
The one hitch is that CLEAR isn’t available everywhere: It’s currently running at 37 U.S. airports and counting, plus a handful of professional sports stadiums. Expect that number to continue to grow.
And unlike the five-year membership for PreCheck, CLEAR has an annual fee: $179 per year. Delta and United flyers can get some big savings. It costs $119 for a general SkyMiles member, and only $109 per year if you hold one of Delta’s co-branded American Express cards or status with Delta.
CLEAR is free for top-tier Delta Diamond Medallion and United 1K status members. And the Platinum Card® from American Express now offers a $179 annual credit to cover the entire cost of CLEAR membership, too.
Relax Inside a Lounge
With a few million travelers on the move, your airport terminal could be full in the next few weeks. Need an escape (and maybe a drink)? You’re looking for an airport lounge.
At a minimum, you’ll get free drinks and snacks, a place to recharge your devices, and far better seating than the stiff chairs at your gate. In major hubs and overseas, you might find full buffets, a la carte dining, showers, and even private sleeping rooms.
Check out the app Loungebuddy for a rundown of what lounges are available at any airport. Loungebuddy will also tell you whether you can buy a single-visit day pass to a lounge.
But rather than paying upfront per visit, the best way to get into airport lounges is by holding the right premium travel credit card. One of our favorites is the Platinum Card® from American Express, which opens more lounge doors than any other credit card.
You’ll get access to a growing number of posh Amex Centurion Lounges in the U.S. and abroad, 1,200-plus Priority Pass lounges worldwide. If you're flying Delta that day, you can get into the Delta Sky Club. Finally, you can get into Escape Lounges, including our hometown favorite: The MSP Escape Lounge.
At $695 per year (see rates & fees), the Platinum Card isn't for everyone. But unbeatable lounge access plus all the other Amex Platinum benefits can easily make that price tag worth it for some travelers.
The brand new Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card is another great option – especially if you're looking to pay less. It'll get you into Priority Pass lounges worldwide plus the outstanding new Capital One lounges, the first of which opened in Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) this month. More locations are on the way, starting with Denver (DEN) and Washington, D.C.-Dulles (IAD) next year.
The new Venture X Card hit the market recently targeting price-conscious travelers who still want perks: It has an annual fee of just $395 a year. But even that's deceiving, as an annual $300 credit towards any travel booked through the Capital One travel portal cuts the effective cost down to just $95 a year right off the bat.
You might be dreading spending any of your holiday season inside an airport, and you’re not alone – especially after 20 months away from air travel and crowds, in general. This holiday travel season could be especially rough with long lines and the potential for flight cancellations.
But with some proper planning and a few of these tools, you can make it through.