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Record Crowds & (Mostly) Smooth Skies: What to Expect Flying for the Holidays

It's already been one of the busiest years for travel on record. The hectic holiday travel season will end it with an exclamation point.

Airports and airlines are bracing for the busiest stretch of travel yet over Christmas and New Year's holidays, with an estimated 7.5 million Americans expected to fly over the holidays, according to AAA. That's up from the previous record of 7.2 million in 2019.

It really kicks off in earnest this Thursday, which TSA is projecting to be the busiest travel day, followed by Dec. 29 and Jan. 2. The agency is expecting to screen 2.5 million passengers nationwide each of those days – up another 6% from last year.

The rush of travelers will bring the familiar long lines, packed planes, and even more anxiety about another repeat of mass delays and cancellations from last holiday season. Luckily, this year is looking better: Airlines have been flying smoothly and the weather should cooperate – at least to start. The National Weather Service is forecasting mild weather across the country on Thursday, though Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently warned that “winter weather will be a challenge” as Christmas and then New Year's Day arrive.

Here's what to expect if you're traveling for the holidays this year.


Prepare for Crowds, Arrive Early

No matter where you're heading for the holidays, there are some things you should prepare for before you take to the skies.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects this Thursday will be the busiest day for air travel heading into Christmas, followed by this Wednesday, Friday, and next Tuesday, Dec. 26.

FAA Christmas 2023 forecasted flights 

Traveling for New Year's? The TSA warns you should brace for biggest crowds and longest lines on Friday, Dec. 29, and Tuesday, Jan. 2.

No matter which day you're heading out or returning home for the holidays, give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport. It's better to have more time at your gate – or relaxing in an airport lounge – than risk missing your flight and ruining your trip.

Airport security checkpoints inevitably get backed up during peak holiday travel periods. While the TSA has staffed back up over the last few years, long lines are the norm even in the best of times.

To be safe, add at least 30 to 45 minutes to your typical airport routine. And if you have to fly on one of the busier travel days, arrive two hours or maybe even two and a half hours before your flight – or more if you're traveling internationally for the holidays.

When security lines look like this, even having TSA PreCheck or CLEAR is not a guarantee for a speedy trip through security.

tsa msp 

Read next: Why TSA PreCheck Isn't Showing Up on Your Boarding Pass

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. 

TSA wait times at MSP Airport on the MyTSA app

Travel with Only a Carry-on Bag

Save yourself even more time at the airport by packing in just a carry-on bag. Queues to check or drop off luggage are always a major pain point during busy travel times, and this holiday season will be no exception.

Especially during peak travel seasons like Christmas and New Year's, opting not to check a bag means you won't have to wait in line to drop it off or wait for it at baggage claim. And you won't have to worry about the airline losing your luggage, either.

Plus, by packing in just a carry-on bag, you can easily check-in for your flight online. Just pull up your boarding pass on your smartphone and head straight for the security line.

TSA security lines and bins 

If you're traveling with gifts, the TSA says you should make sure either they're unwrapped or in gift bags or boxes that can be easily opened at security.

Not convinced you can fit it all in one suitcase? Follow our tips for how to pack a carry-on bag for any trip


Tips to Ensure Smoother Travel Days

While the U.S. airline industry is in a much better place than it was this time last year and the weather forecast is looking better, too, it still pays to be prepared.

Southwest has said its made a bevy of operational improvements – from technology updates to additional de-icing resources – to avoid a repeat of last year's catastrophic Christmas meltdown. American, Delta, and United have all pointed to their smooth schedules over Thanksgiving as proof that they're ready to handle the rush of Christmas and New Year's travelers.

“With a successful November and Thanksgiving operation behind us, Delta people are prepared to deliver a world-class experience for our customers over the holidays,” Delta's Chief Operating Officer Mike Spanos said in a statement.

Still, anything can happen. Here are a few things you can do to minimize your chances of getting delayed or canceled – or what you can do if the worst happens.

  • Monitor your reservation & your airline: Watch your flight like a hawk for possible last-minute changes or delays – or use an app like Flighty to do it for you. But it also pays to monitor whether your airline is canceling or delaying flights in the days leading up to your trip. If FlightAware shows your airline is struggling on Tuesday, it's safe to assume those issues may continue on Wednesday when you're scheduled to fly.
  • Contact your airline – in more ways than one: If your flight gets delayed or canceled, 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.


what to do when your flight is canceled 

Read more: How to Survive (Or Avoid) Flight Cancellations & Delays


Bottom Line

It's already been one of the busiest travel years on record, and it's not over yet.

More Americans than ever are expected to fly for the Christmas and New Year's holidays this year, according to AAA, so brace yourself for crowded airports and long lines at security and bag drop. And while airlines are in better shape heading into the holidays than this time a year ago, anything can happen. It always pays to be prepared.


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