Tips for smooth(er) holiday air travel

With the busiest times of the year for air travel now upon us, here are some helpful tips to make your holiday season travels, if not exactly “smooth,” at least smoother.

Choose your travel and dates carefully

According to travel tech company Sojern, Sundays and Mondays are best for cheaper tickets and smaller crowds. The company's 3Q16 Global Travel Insights report shows that only nine percent of Americans book travel on those days of the week vs. 20 percent on Thursdays and 23 percent on Fridays. Closer to Christmas, avoid travel on Friday, Dec. 23. Since the company began monitoring travel trends, Dec. 23 has historically been the busiest travel day of the Christmas holiday season.

Try to book non-stop flights whenever possible, even if it costs a few dollars extra. Every takeoff and landing means another opportunity for a delay, either of the aircraft, baggage, or both. Every transfer from one plane to another is likewise another opportunity for a "misdirected" (read:lost) bag.

Check in on line

Most airlines allow passengers to check in 24 hours before their flights and print boarding passes or send them to their smartphones. DO IT! And if you’re checking bags, pay the checked-bag fee online, too. It will shorten your stay at the check-in counter and allow you to get to the thrilling experience of clearing security that much faster.

To park or not to park

Depending on where you live in relation to the airport and how long you’ll be gone, it might be cheaper to engage a car service or taxi to take you to the airport and a taxi home than it would be to park the car for several days. For example, parking at my home airport of Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA) is $32 per day or $149 for a week. Even if taking a car service doesn’t save any money, leaving the driving to someone else will certainly save the hassle of parking the car, then taking a shuttle from off-site parking or schlepping in from the airport parking garage. It will also save you the same hassles when you arrive home at the end of a tiring trip.

Dress comfortably

Unless you’re heading to a business meeting that will happen immediately after you get off the plane, dress down. I am not advocating wearing PJs and slippers to the airport (though I have, to my utter amazement, seen it more times than I care to count), but a comfortable pair of jeans or even sweat pants and sneakers are perfectly OK. If you want a pillow, bring your own – either a standard pillow or one of the “U-shaped” neck pillows – because few airlines provide them outside of the First Class cabin.

Allow plenty of time

During most times of the year, I have found that the airlines recommend far more time than is actually needed, especially for travelers like me who rarely check a bag. However, the holidays are an exception. As always, remember that the TSA security lines are the “wild card,” and are not under the control of the airlines.

Security lines at Sea-Tac Airport (SEA)

Have your ducks in a row

If you haven’t traveled by air recently, check the TSA regulations for what is allowed and how to pack your carry-on luggage. The TSA’s website has a helpful web page for getting through those lines faster.

For those carrying on liquids, the TSA requires that “Liquids, gels, aerosols, creams and pastes must be 3.4 ounces (100ml) or less per container [and] must be in 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag.” The bag must be placed in a screening bin if going through standard security, and each passenger is allowed one bag.

If you’re fortunate enough to be assigned to a TSA Pre-Check line, which is dramatically faster than the standard security line, you won’t have to take off your shoes, coat, remove your laptop from its bag, or take your bag of liquids out. Those passengers who are randomly selected for Pre-Check screening are U.S. citizens and members of their airline’s frequent flier program, and who meet TSA-mandated criteria.

Pre-Check designations are issued to individual passengers and do not extend to anyone else traveling with them. However, some TSA agents have been known to be more accommodating in cases where one member of a couple has a Pre-Check designation and the other does not. Still, be prepared to go through different security lines if one person gets Pre-Check status and another does not.

Apply for a 'Known Traveler Number'

For your next trip, consider applying for a Known Traveler Number. The process is relatively painless, though it can take a couple of months to get an appointment for the required in-person interview. However, once obtained, a Known Traveler Number will allow the approved traveler to use the TSA Pre-Check lines any time they travel for the next five years.

Known Traveler Numbers can be obtained through any of several programs including TSA's Pre-Check program, which has an $85 application fee and, if approved, is good for five years. For travelers who will be traveling internationally -- even once in the next five years --  I recommend the Global Entry program. For an additional $15 over the cost of TSA's Pre-Check program, approved travelers will also have access to expedited Customs clearance when they return to the U.S., the ability to use NEXUS ans SENTRI lanes for land and seaports when returning to the U.S., and even expedited customs clearance at some major airports in Europe.

Get serious

Sure, you’re heading for Aunt Becky’s and looking forward to matching Uncle Jim’s corny jokes with jokes of your own, but save the levity until you’re through security. Many TSA agents have spent their entire career in government service and, well, do you remember that line from the movie Men in Black? “No, ma’am. We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we’re aware of.” Same goes for the TSA.

ZeroWater tumbler
Photo provided by manufacturer

While young people have a slightly different definition, we Baby Boomers know that stands for “Bring your own bottle,” and it applies when traveling. While you can’t bring bottled water through security, there are specifically designed travel items that can help. You can bring a filter bottle or tumbler like the ZeroWater filter tumbler shown, or even an empty water bottle and fill it at a drinking fountain on the other side if you don’t want to pay the inflated prices at airport shops.

Don’t forget your electronics

One of the distinct disadvantages of traveling with an iPad or other tablet is that it’s far too easy to forget it in the seat back pocket. U.S. airlines allow passengers to leave them on from boarding to departure as long as they’re in “Airplane mode,” so feel free to keep them where you can see them. Read TheTravelPro post about using electronics in flight here.

Roll with the punches

Mentally prepare yourself for the possibility that you may be delayed by bumper-to-bumper traffic, at security, or that your flight may be delayed or cancelled altogether.

If your plane is delayed or your flight cancelled, call your airline's reservations number immediately to make alternate arrangements. NEVER wait in line at the airline's counter at the airport. Calling reservations will allow you to "jump the line" over those fellow passengers who just have to call Aunt Becky and Uncle Jim before taking care of themselves.

Have a back-up plan, which should include taking a few extra days' worth of any medications you take on a daily basis. (And keep them with you. Never, ever put your meds in your checked luggage!)

Sleeping on an airport couch is not a back-up plan. Scout out a couple of hotels near the airport and have their numbers in your phone or tablet. Worst case scenario is that you spend a bit more money for another hotel night and get back to work or school a day later. Don't stress about it; at least you'll have one of your own to contribute when your co-workers start swapping their "Trips from Hell" stories.

Safe and pleasant travels.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise noted
Click on photo to view larger image

If you found this article helpful, informative and/or entertaining, please consider making a donation via PayPal to help support this private project.