Flying anywhere for the holidays? Get ready for crowds. Lots and lots of crowds. 45 million Americans are taking to the skies this Christmas, and that means both airports and airplanes are going to be bursting at the seams. Friday, Dec. 19, is forecast to be the busiest travel day of the year, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the holiday season will be a picnic for fliers. Still, there are ways to make the experience more bearable, thanks to some tech tools, advanced planning and a little patience.
Before You Go
Pack properly. The proliferation of checked baggage fees has prompted many passengers to cram as much as they can into their carry-on luggage. But airlines are cracking down on carry-on size limits as travelers fight for overhead bin space. So make sure your bag doesn’t exceed the allotted 22-inch height, 14-inch width and 9-inch depth restrictions.
Charge at home. Even though more airports are adding electrical outlets for power-strapped travelers, the holiday overload means you’ll probably still have to fight for a charge. So power up your devices before you leave. Or consider getting a portable charger so you can juice on the go.
Label your luggage. If you do plan to check bags, make sure you label them carefully with your contact information and even your itinerary. And attach some flair to make your bag stand out, says Thomas Spagnola of CheapOair.com. “Add a big ribbon, a giant nametag -- something that makes it stick out from the majority of basic black bags,” says Spagnola. Snap a picture of both the contents and outside of your luggage. It will come in handy in the unhappy event your bags don’t reach your destination with you. Want complete peace of mind? The Trakdot luggage tracker ($50) transmits the bag’s location to you via your smartphone.
Stay informed. Combine winter weather with record crowds and you have a recipe for delays and flight changes. Stay in the know by following your airline and airport on social media for updates. Sign up for text and email alerts with your airline, and download an app like FlightStats or FlightAware to get live updates on delays and cancellations -- often before your airline even contacts you itself.
Snag the best seat. Go to SeatGuru.com for information on the best (and worst) seats on your flight. You can read reviews and strategize about which seats will offer the most comfort. But if your choice spots have already been assigned (elite frequent fliers get dibs on them) and you’re not happy with what you got, all is not lost. You can set up an alert at ExpertFlyer.com to get a notification when a choice seat, like an exit row, becomes available. If you’re traveling with the family, consider a subscription to TripIt Pro ($49/year), which offers a service that lets you know when a block of four seats open up together.
Check in at home. There’s no excuse anymore for waiting until you get to the airport. Check in online as soon as the 24-hour window opens up. You’ll increase your chance of switching to a better seat if available and decrease your chance of being the unlucky traveler who gets bumped on an overbooked flight. “Do as much as you can in advance,” says Spagnola. That includes paying for any baggage fees, choosing upgrades and printing or setting up electronic boarding passes.
Change your flight if weather is bad. American, Delta and United have all waived change fees ahead of major storms in recent years. If you know the weather is going to be bad, call ahead and dodge it by rebooking your flight in advance.
At The Airport
Arrive early. Don’t reenact the rush-to-the-airport scenario from Home Alone by cutting your transfer time down to the wire. During a busy travel season, get to the airport two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before international. You’ll give yourself enough extra cushioning to withstand long security lines and deal with any snafus that may arise.
Pony up for priority boarding. The prospect of paying yet another fee to the airlines hardly thrills anyone, but this one might be worth it. When everyone is fighting for space in the overhead bins and generally elbowing one another to get on a flight, access to priority boarding can make all the difference, writes George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com. You may even get access to a speedier security line. Hobica rounds up what various airlines offer -- some charge as little as $5 for the privilege.
Take advantage of a skycap. Sure, you can handle your own luggage. But if you’re in a pinch for time or the lines are too long, $2 per bag at the curbside check-in can save you a lot of time and hassle. You can also pay for checked baggage fees there if you haven’t already done so online.
Know your way. The GateGuru app is a must-have for any savvy traveler. It will help you find restaurants, stores and even charging stations so you’re not wasting precious minutes at the airport.
Lounge around. When the crowds are thick and stress levels are high, escaping to an airport lounge can make waiting around more bearable, especially if there are weather delays. Many lounges now sell day passes for around $50 for the privilege of munching on some food, accessing Wi-Fi and relaxing in a more pleasant surrounding. And the agents stationed at lounges are likely to be less swamped and thus more helpful if you need assistance. The LoungeBuddy app helps you find out which lounges are accessible to you, depending on your flight, airline and credit card status.
Your Flight Is Delayed Or Canceled
Have the right numbers on hand. Program your phone ahead of time with as many contact numbers for your airline as possible. Check GetHuman.com for numbers and the fastest way to reach a human being when you do call. You may even try calling the lines designated for non-English speakers and cajole your way into some help. Because when a flight gets canceled, there’s a mad rush to get rebooked, and the faster you do, the better chance you have. So don’t delay. Double up, too -- call for rebooking while you’re waiting in line to talk to an attendant in person at the airport.
Offer the airline alternatives. If you can present the agent helping you with an alternative flight option, you’ll increase your chances of getting rebooked. The NextFlight app can help you find out what your options are. FlightStats.com also offers a service that finds open seats on other flights. And when all else fails, ask to be booked on another airline. They won’t tell you, but the airlines do have the ability to sign your ticket over to another carrier.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate. If you are stuck on an overbooked flight and have some flexibility, you can use the opportunity to negotiate a sweeter deal, says Spagnola. You may be able to score free tickets and even upgrades if the airlines are desperate enough. So be sure to ask.
Find a place to stay. If you do get stuck at the airport, look for a hotel using HotelTonight, an app that finds last-minute deals on rooms, including airport properties.