If you saw the TSA security checkpoint numbers over the last few months, then you already knew that this holiday season was going to be crazy busy. First of all, Thanksgiving set all kinds of records including the all-time highest number of people passing through security checkpoints at U.S. airports for a single day (November 26, 2023). RELATED: Avoid Holiday Travel Headaches With These 10 Tips and Tricks

AAA just released their 2023 holiday forecast and they project that “115.2 million travelers will head 50 miles or more from home over the 10-day year-end holiday travel period*. This year’s total number of domestic travelers is a 2.2% increase over last year and the second highest year-end travel forecast since 2000, when AAA began tracking holiday travel. 2019 remains the busiest Christmas and New Year’s travel period on record with 119 million travelers.”

AAA also says airports are expected to be the busiest they’ve ever been over the Christmas and New Year’s travel period with 7.5 million air travelers this holiday season. This will surpass 2019’s record of 7.3 million passengers.

So now that we’ve confirmed that airports are going to be packed, here’s my holiday travel Airport Survival Guide to help make your travels smoother and less stressful.

1. Give yourself plenty of time
No matter if you’re flying or driving, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination or to the airport. Unfortunately, accidents happen and just one fender bender can really throw a wrench into your plans (and your car).

2. Use Waze/Apple Maps
If you’re driving, or even if you have a driver to get to the airport, look at Waze to check routes and find out how long it will take. I do this a week before my trip and the day before my trip at the exact time I think I should be leaving to get a rough estimate of what time I really need to leave.

3. Reserve airport parking in advance
If you’re planning on parking at the airport this holiday or during any other holiday, then reserve your parking spot in advance. You can do this at individual parking providers, airports or AirportParkingReservations.com. Not only will you be guaranteed a spot, but you will probably save money by booking in advance. To give you an idea how full airport parking lots are, look at the airport’s official website or check their X (formerly Twitter) handle. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) does a great job updating the public on traffic going into the airport and parking lot capacity. It’s updated every 15 minutes. Here are more airport parking tips.

4. Communicate with the airlines
Remember, planes will be full so if you miss your flight, it could be days until you get on the next flight. And if you miss your flight because you show up late, you will most likely have to buy a new ticket.

Tip: If you are running late, be sure to contact the airline and let them know so they can at least cancel your ticket and give you a credit to apply to a new ticket.

5. Ask the TSA
If you’re wondering what you can pack and what you can’t pack, then just ask the TSA directly. Surprisingly, they do a great job responding to questions via X (@AskTSA) or text “Travel” to AskTSA (275-872 during normal business hours. You can also download the free MyTSA app.

6. Know the rules for airport security
One reason business travelers don’t like traveling during the holidays is because the airports are full of people who don’t know the basic security protocols. If everyone did a little research in advance and learned the rules it would speed things up tremendously. Have your shoes, belt and anything metal including coins, wallet and phone packed away in your bag or in the pockets of your jacket and just put them all on the conveyor belt. And of course, know and abide by the 3-1-1 liquids rule.

7. Don’t wrap your gifts
Last year, the TSA’s spokesperson tweeted: “Tip of the Day from TSA: Flying with gifts this holiday season? Instead of using wrapping paper, @TSA recommends using gift bags so if the item triggers an alarm at the checkpoint, a TSA officer isn’t unwrapping the gift to resolve the alarm. That’s how to pack smart!”

I know snow globes are a popular gift and they are allowed in your carry-on bag as long as they contain less than 3.4 ounces of liquid (approximately the size of a tennis ball). The TSA says it “can be packed in your carry-on bag ONLY if the entire snow globe, including the base, is able to fit into your one quart-sized, resealable plastic bag. Each passenger can only bring one quart-sized bag with 3.4 oz or smaller containers. Larger snow globes must be packed in checked baggage.”

8. Breeze through security
Want to breeze through airport security? Find out if your airport and terminal offers TSA PreCheck and Clear. TSA PreCheck allows low-risk travelers to keep their shoes, jacket and belt on; laptops in its case; 3-1-1 compliant liquids in their bag. The application fee is $78 for 5 years and you can now sign up at some Staples stores. Here’s more information on that.

CLEAR is a private biometrics company with a partnership with the US government to transform your eyes and face into touchless ID so you can bypass those long, slow lines at over 50 U.S. airports, as well as some sports and entertainment stadiums/arenas and venues (here’s a list; make sure you check not only the airport but the terminal, too) by quickly scanning your irises and ticket.

TIP: Another good reason to get CLEAR is that you don’t need to take your driver’s license out.

CLEAR costs $189 a year but there are some secret ways to get it cheaper, besides being an uber-elite frequent flier on Delta or United. I wish American Airlines had a partnership with them, too. If you want to knock that price down to $179, just sign up for Delta Air Lines’ or United Airlines’ frequent flier programs. They’re free to join and by spending two minutes to register, you’ll save $40 or more if you have status. If you’re traveling with your family, then know you can add up to three adults to your account at $99 a pop. Certain premium credit cards will reimburse you for your fee. Here’s more about how you can get CLEAR for cheap.

9. Pack your patience … and snacks
In addition to packing smart, be sure to always pack your patience and bring snacks and drinks. It doesn’t matter if you’re flying on a short flight or across the country. If your flight is delayed or canceled, at least you won’t be at the mercy of flight attendants or have to fight the lines at airport concessions and pay their astronomical prices. It’s even more important if you’re traveling with kids or a spouse who has a tendency to get hangry (my hand is up in the air).

10. Bring your smile and bags of chocolates
If you subscribe to my free newsletter, then you already know that my number one travel tip has always been to be genuinely kind to everyone you encounter when you travel but especially gate agents and flight attendants. My second best tip is to bring a bag of chocolates for the gate agents, flight attendants, pilots (and even yourself!) because airport staff and flight crew love to be appreciated and they really don’t want to be working during the holidays. Can you blame them? This is an easy and inexpensive way to show your appreciation and make their day.

Last year, Sara Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants was interviewed by The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for their podcast The Air Up There about ways to give thanks this holiday season. Sara was asked, “How can passengers throughout the holiday season thank their crew?” Sara replied, “Oh, wow! You know what, kind words go a really long way. So if you remember to do that, when you step on the plane, take a minute to look up from your phone and say hello. Greet the flight attendants. And on your way out, thank them and just be thoughtful about that. Look around and see if you can help in any way. But also what I would say is, you know, flight attendants love chocolate.”

Good luck navigating busy airports, be kind, be patient and Happy Holidays!


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