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21 Essential Holiday Travel Tips: How To Survive Travel Chaos This Season

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Lori Zaino
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Lori Zaino

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Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lan...
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‘Tis the season. The pumpkin spice lattes, turkey, and Christmas carols … the holidays can bring plenty of holiday cheer but also impending dread. This may ring especially true when you’re traveling, with the potential to miss important celebrations at Grandma’s or a coveted Caribbean vacation. We don’t have tips for surviving holiday gatherings, but we can help get you there. We’re bringing you everything we’ve got to help you manage holiday travel and have a stress-free holiday travel season this year.

21 Expert Tips for Surviving the Holiday Travel Season

From travel insurance to Airtags, here’s everything you need to know and do for a successful holiday travel season.

1. Book Plane Tickets Early

If you haven’t booked your plane tickets yet, now is the time. While there are many media reports about the best days of the week to book a flight, Upgraded Points research indicates that there really isn’t a specific time to book that guarantees a good deal.

However, there are peak times when it comes to travel dates, so if you can head somewhere earlier and work remotely before the high travel dates start, do it. Set price alerts ASAP to notify you about fare pricing and book as soon as you can; you can also plan to use points and miles for award tickets.

The main thing to know is that it’s best to book tickets in advance for peak dates like the holidays. According to Expedia flight data, the sweet spot for booking holiday airfare is 1 to 2 months out this year. If you haven’t gotten plane or train tickets yet, do it. And if you notice the price goes down? Many airlines (and Google Flights) allow you to change your ticket, assuming it’s not basic economy, and get the difference back in cash or miles.

2. Buy Flexible Tickets

This brings us to what type of ticket you should purchase. It’s best to book a changeable or cancelable ticket and avoid basic economy tickets. If (or when) things go awry, it’s essential to have tickets that offer a full refund or at least an e-credit for rebooking.

Hot Tip:

If you book last minute, some airlines offer lower last-minute pricing than others, such as Spirit, Southwest, and United. Check out this post to find the complete list of airlines best for booking last-minute tickets.

3. Pad Your Travel Dates

If you absolutely can’t miss Christmas morning with your cousins or can’t fathom skipping the bar scene with your siblings on Blackout Wednesday, give yourself some extra time by padding your travel dates.

Weather, overbooking, crowded airspace, and so much more can cause delays and cancellations around the holidays. Hence, booking travel a few days before you actually need to be there can be a lifesaver when things don’t go as planned. It can save you a lot of headaches and stress knowing that even if you encounter delays, you’ll still make it where you need to be on time.

And you may save money by traveling on off-peak travel dates, too. Data from Expedia this year shows that departing on Monday, November 20 offers a 12% savings over departing the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Departing on Tuesday, December 19 is 25% cheaper than departing Friday, December 22. Leaving on Saturday, December 30 (or on New Year’s Eve) is 45% cheaper than departing on December 26.

4. Travel on a Holiday

Man waiting for flight at airport next to Christmas tree
Save money (and even a little sanity) by flying on the actual holiday day. Image Credit: smartape via Adobe Stock

If you want cheap flights for Thanksgiving or Christmas, flying on the actual holiday is often much cheaper. Of course, you may not want to miss these special days, but if you’re on a budget, you could consider the first flight of the day. Often, the airport is fairly quiet on these days, at least compared to the days leading up to the holiday. You can’t always plan for inclement weather, but it is an option to save money.

This often works well if you’re planning to go on vacation. I usually always head to a sunny destination on Christmas Day, having already spent Christmas Eve with my extended family living nearby and opening presents with the kids on Christmas morning. Heading to Europe for the Thanksgiving holiday is also an easy way to avoid travel chaos. European air carriers don’t consider Thanksgiving a peak time, so traveling on an airline such as Iberia, Lufthansa, or KLM may mean you’ll get off-peak award rates when booking with points and miles.

Hot Tip:

Our guide to airline peak and off-peak travel dates can help you figure out where to fly on various airlines on the cheap.

5. Book Direct

Booking travel directly, especially airfare (but also hotels), can be beneficial if issues arise. It’s much easier to claim directly with an airline for a refund or credit versus going through an OTA and the airline.

There is one circumstance that may differ — that’s booking travel through a more traditional travel agent. If an actual person (and we don’t mean Expedia) is handling your travel, they may also have extended resources to solve any possible travel situations quicker and easier, with less work and strain on your end.

6. Get Travel Insurance (Or Book With a Credit Card That Has Travel Protections)

Travel insurance can be a lifesaver in situations like missing a cruise because your flight was delayed, getting ill abroad, or if your baggage is lost.

However, you may not need to purchase additional insurance if you have (or get) a credit card that offers protection. Although many different cards offer various types of coverage, we think the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers the best overall value for travel insurance, especially considering the annual fee is just $95. The card includes protections like an auto rental collision damage waiver, trip cancellation and trip interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement, travel accident insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, roadside dispatch, travel and emergency assistance services, and baggage delay insurance.

Hot Tip:

Travel insurance is always a good idea but can be especially helpful during peak times. And getting it via a credit card is the easiest way to do so. Read more on travel insurance with our lists of best credit cards for certain types of insurance: best credit cards for travel insurance, best credit cards for rental car insurance, best credit cards for trip delay insurance, and best credit cards for trip cancellation and interruption.

7. Fly Nonstop

Every time you have a layover during peak travel season, it increases the risk of delays and cancellations. Flying nonstop means that you only have to deal with the possible issues that may arise with just 1 flight, not 2 or 3 flights.

If you absolutely have to have a layover, think carefully about where to have it. For example, if you’re flying from Las Vegas to Miami and can’t find or afford a nonstop flight, it may be better to choose a layover in Dallas vs. Denver in hopes of avoiding snow-related delays. Of course, delays can and do happen anywhere, but avoiding the worst of the winter weather is always a plus during peak winter dates.

8. Pack Extras in Case of Delays

If your holiday travel anxiety is already full-blown just from the thought of delays or cancellations, you can at least be prepared. I’ll never forget my first trip to the U.S. from Europe with my 4-month-old son. A friend told me to bring 1 diaper per half hour I would be at the airport and onboard. I thought this was slightly excessive, but when our flight was delayed 4 hours in Madrid, then we missed our connecting flight to Tucson and had to stay overnight in Dallas, I had enough diapers (with some to spare).

Preparation isn’t limited to families with kids, though you can save a lot of drama if you bring enough snacks. Make sure to have plenty of reading material, food, a tablet, phone, or computer with plenty of downloaded content, a travel pillow and blanket, an eyemask — whatever you and your travel companions need to stay comfortable and entertained during the flight and any delays that come along with it.

9. Arrive at the Airport Early

Avoid travel delays by getting to the airport early enough to make your flight. You may have to wait in long lines or get stuck in airport crowds, and missing your flight because you ran late could really screw up your holiday plans.

Although the busy holiday travel season may disrupt your plans, getting to the airport with time to spare generally varies by airport.

Here’s Exactly How Early You Should Get To Your Preferred Airport

This study by Upgraded Points details exactly how much time you should give yourself at airports around the U.S. Findings range from getting to Chicago (ORD) 3 hours and 4 minutes before your flight to just an hour at Columbus (CMH).

That said, you’ll want to arrive even earlier around the holidays, as lines can be longer and staffing shortages are frequent on the busiest travel days around Christmas and Thanksgiving. Alex Miller, Founder and CEO of Upgraded Points and author of the aforementioned study, suggests amending airport arrival times during those peak holiday periods.

“During Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other busy holiday periods, add an extra 60 to 90 minutes on top of normal minimum arrival times. For major airports prone to delays like ORD, JFK, ATL, and LAX, consider allowing 3+ hours for domestic and 4+ hours for international flights over the holidays.”

Alex Miller, Founder and CEO of Upgraded Points

Another tip Miller suggests is “checking the airport website for current estimated wait times to get a sense of what to expect and plan accordingly.”

And don’t forget about the time it may take to park. “Expect parking lots and shuttles to be more crowded as well, requiring more time to park and transit to terminals,” he adds. Booking and paying for airport parking in advance may help speed up parking delays.

If getting to the airport 4 hours in advance seems unappealing, we get it. Resurgences of COVID-19, cranky staff members and TSA agents, angry delayed passengers, long lines, and general holiday airport hassle mean that airports full of hordes of travelers can be fairly unpleasant destinations. But remember — once you make it through security, you can relax and recover in the lounge — which brings us to our next point.

10. Get a Credit Card That Offers Lounge Access

American Express Centurion Lounge Sydney views
Escape the crowded airport and uncomfortable seating. Image Credit: Daniel Ross

Holiday travel often means long lines, pushy fellow travelers, and a generally stressed-out, cranky vibe that permeates airports when passengers are frustrated and staff are overworked. Leave that all behind by entering a lounge, a more exclusive area where you can escape the congested gates, sad airport shops, and overpriced restaurants and bars.

Airport lounges have their fair share of issues as well — many have tired infrastructure, stale food, fill up quickly, or aren’t quite as comfortable as you would have hoped. But almost anything beats sitting on the cold floor at your gate trying to charge your phone as harried travelers climb over you. And when massive delays or flight cancellations hit, lounge access feels like a gold mine — free food and drinks, plus a comfortable place to work, nap, charge up your devices, or relax.

The Best Credit Cards To Get for Airport Lounge Access

Many credit cards offer Priority Pass memberships with access to 1,400+ lounges, and some also include access to Chase Sapphire Lounge by The Club, Capital One Lounge, or Centurion Lounge. Although various cards offer these memberships, some are better than others or have lower annual fees.

If you’re looking for a card with flexible points and affordable annual fees that offers lounge access, your best bet is the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card. This card offers Priority Pass Select membership and access to the snazzy new Capital One Lounges.

Hot Tip:

Don’t pay for lounge access when you can get it included with a credit card. Check out all of our favorite credit cards that come with airport lounge access benefits.

11. Review Your Points Stash, Elite Status, and Alternatives Pre-Travel

It’s true that if the airline cancels your flight, they have to rebook you or give you a refund. But a refund on your $200 flight that you booked 8 months prior from Charlotte to New York doesn’t mean much if you absolutely have to get there today, ticket prices are sky high, and all the flights are overbooked.

If you’ve familiarized yourself with your current points and miles holdings and elite status benefits before traveling, you can easily see what possible Plan Bs (and Plan Cs and Ds) can be. For example, if you hold American Airlines elite status, you may find it easier to get customer service on the phone for rebooking. Or, when cash prices are wildly overpriced, that stash of flexible points, like Chase Ultimate Rewards points, may come in handy, as you can transfer them to several different airlines.

Knowing if you hold certain, more obscure elite status levels can also be helpful. For example, if flights are sold out, you may need to rent a car to reach your destination. Having a status like Hertz Gold Plus Rewards President’s Circle can be helpful in peak times when rental cars are expensive or nearly sold out.

12. Have a Plan B

We’re not saying you should write a detailed white paper on what you can do if your flight is delayed or canceled, but it’s always good to have a Plan B in mind. Consider what you might do during winter storms, delays, cancellations, and road closures. Having an alternative when things don’t go as planned will give you a leg up.

13. Don’t Check a Bag

According to BBC, 26 million pieces of luggage were lost, damaged, or delayed in 2022. In December 2022, The Washington Post reported, “A nation’s stuff, squeezed and zippered and then entrusted to the delicate ballet of air travel, has been mislaid and orphaned this week.” While the aforementioned delicate ballet of air travel seems to be evening out slightly following the post-COVID-19 travel chaos, we don’t have high hopes for our luggage this holiday season.

The potential for a ruined holiday is already high enough due to staff shortages and inclement weather events. Minimize the drama caused by losing all the kids’ Christmas gifts or having to shop for emergency undergarments on Christmas Eve by packing items in your carry-on luggage.

14. If You Do Check a Bag, Use a Tracker and Credit Card With Baggage Insurance

If you’re a heavy packer, you’re not alone. Sometimes, it’s impossible to travel without checking a bag, especially if you’re going to a cold climate or spending a longer period of time somewhere. If you absolutely have to check a bag, follow these tips:

  • Use AirTags or another type of bag tracker to know exactly where your bag is at all times.
  • Book travel with a credit card that offers lost or delayed baggage coverage.
  • Pack gifts and other key items (especially items of value) in your carry-on.
  • Check to see that bag tags are accurate and properly attached to your bag.
  • Ensure your bags are labeled with your name, phone number, and address.
  • Use a co-branded airline credit card that gives you a checked bag for free.
Hot Tip:

Many credit cards come with baggage coverage. However, premium cards usually offer more coverage and higher amounts. These are our top picks for the best credit cards offering lost or delayed baggage insurance coverage.

15. Know the Rules About Packing Gifts (And Popular Holiday Items)

Winter gifts
Learn how to carry your holiday cheer through TSA security. Image Credit: Alexa via Pixabay

It wouldn’t be a list of Christmas travel tips if we didn’t include exactly what you need to know about packing and traveling with gifts.

Wondering if you can take wrapped presents on a plane? While you can and probably should carry most gifts in your carry-on bag to avoid any issues with lost luggage, TSA can (and will) unwrap anything they deem suspicious. Our best tip is to bring your gifts unwrapped if possible. Wrap them at your destination later if you’re concerned TSA might dismantle your beautiful wrapping job.

TSA has a list of what you can and can’t bring on a plane. The same things you can’t bring on a plane in your carry-on (e.g., liquids over 100 milliliters) can’t be carried on wrapped. So either gift that bottle of perfume in a 100-milliliter-or-less container, or you’ll have to check it, wrapped or not.

Regarding Advent calendars and snowglobes, you can bring both in your carry-on bag. However, snow globes must contain 3.4 ounces of liquid or less (approximately the size of a tennis ball); otherwise, you should check them. TSA also states you can bring things like tins of cookies, chocolates, popcorn, pretzels, solid cheeses, jewelry, gaming consoles, and traditional candles in your carry-on. Still, eggnog and alcohol should go in your checked luggage. If you have more questions, you can tweet @AskTSA (and feel free to tag us, too, @UpgradedPoints, and we’ll weigh in).

16. Get TSA PreCheck and Global Entry

One of the most significant slowdowns during a holiday airport is long lines at security and customs if you happen to be traveling internationally. Avoid it by getting TSA PreCheck to speed through airport security (and not have to take those winter boots off) or Global Entry, which can make arrivals back in the U.S. much less stressful, faster, and more streamlined.

We recommend getting Global Entry because you get TSA PreCheck, too, so you might as well get both. The best part? Get them for free with a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck statement credit that comes with several different credit cards, including The Platinum Card® from American Express.

Hot Tip:

Global Entry and TSA PreCheck make international arrivals and going through security a breeze. Here are the credit cards that offer a statement credit for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck.

17. Use Black Friday Shopping Portal Deals To Pick Up Travel Gear

Sometimes, that neck pillow, eye mask, or noise-canceling headphone set can make all the difference during a long delay or if you get stuck next to an overly chatty seatmate. Pick up all your travel gear, from luggage scales to Airtags to suitcases and electronics, online during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales to save additional cash. Don’t forget to use shopping portals whenever possible to double-dip on points and miles earnings.

18. Download Key Travel Apps

From tracking your delay on FlightAware to viewing your itinerary using TripIt’s straightforward interface to depending on LoungeBuddy to find the right place to hang out when your flight is canceled, travel apps make troubleshooting travel issues just a little bit easier.

Even having X on your phone means you can tweet airlines and possibly avoid long waits sitting on hold when you need to reschedule a canceled flight. Make sure to download apps from your chosen airline, credit card, and hotel, as well as general travel apps like the ones mentioned above that can make a crummy travel situation just a little bit easier.

19. Know Your Rights

Flight cancellations at Christmas and Thanksgiving can always happen, especially during the busiest travel days. Knowing your rights is fundamental for ensuring you’re fairly treated and compensated if something goes wrong. The U.S. Department of Transportation explains what you should know, so have this information handy if things don’t go as planned.

For example, U.S. airlines must give passengers food and water no later than 2 hours after a tarmac delay begins for both domestic and international flights. However, “domestic itineraries airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled,” according to the DOT. Airlines must also give all passengers bumped involuntarily “a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t.” 

Sometimes, airlines take advantage of the fact that many consumers are unaware of their rights as passengers to cut corners. If you know exactly what you’re entitled to, you can make sure you get it.

20. Fly Early in the Day

While there are no guarantees, catching the earliest flight of the day means you might miss some of the travel chaos and avoid delays that form little by little as the day progresses. While travel disruptions are usually less common if you fly earlier, if you do experience issues, there’s a chance you’ll still be able to get to your destination on a flight later that day. If you take the last flight of the day, though, you’re out of luck if your flight is canceled, and you’ll have to fly the following day.

21. Be Kind

This may seem obvious, but crowds and delays can upset or frustrate even the savviest and most steadfast travelers. Remember, it’s no fault of the flight attendants or gate agents if there’s a winter storm or your flight is canceled. Everyone would probably rather be somewhere else than at an airport during peak holiday travel times, and staff are just as frazzled as you are, if not much more. So be nice — and who knows, you may end up with an upgrade on your rebooked flight.

Holiday Travel Safety Tips

Stay secure around the holidays with these safe holiday travel tips:

  • Pack valuables in your carry-on.
  • Service your car and ensure it’s ready to drive long distances. Make sure to have supplies in case of emergency or winter weather.
  • Check your destination (if international) for travel advisories on the U.S. Department of State website.
  • Enroll in the STEP program if traveling abroad.
  • Carry a portable charger to keep your devices charged.
  • Share your travel plans with trusted friends and family.
  • Keep on top of weather alerts.
  • Make sure you have travel insurance in case you fall ill when traveling abroad.

Holiday Travel Checklist

Check these to-dos off your list before traveling this holiday season:

  • Check that your passport and ID are up to date and valid.
  • Note which of your rewards credit cards include lounge access, travel insurance, or baggage insurance. Make sure to book travel with cards that offer the best insurance benefits and the most bonus points for travel purchases.
  • Get Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
  • Buy travel items on Black Friday or Cyber Monday to save money (including Airtags).
  • Download useful travel apps.
  • Book airport parking in advance
  • Know your points and miles balances and elite status options.
  • Book plane tickets as far in advance as possible.
  • Know your rights and have a Plan B in mind.
  • Make sure gifts (wrapped or unwrapped) don’t violate TSA restrictions.
  • Try to avoid checking baggage if possible, especially on peak dates.
Hot Tip:

Looking for the ultimate packing checklist? This printable checklist means you won’t forget a thing when packing your suitcase.

Final Thoughts

Whoever said the quote, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” had clearly never been in an airport the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. But the “journey”” doesn’t have to be all bad — if you organize and prepare just right, you’ll have the tools to withstand whatever happens at the airport, whether that be cutting past those long security lines thanks to TSA PreCheck or knowing exactly what compensation you’re owed if you’re involuntarily bumped from your flight. Use these holiday travel planning tips for a safe and enjoyable travel experience this season to help you weather anything that’s thrown at you, from winter storms to lost luggage.

The information regarding the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the busiest travel days of the year?

In past years, the Sunday after Thanksgiving has been the busiest travel day of the year. However, the days before and after Christmas and New Year’s Day, as well as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, are also popular days to fly. If you’re able to travel on other dates, do so. If not, buckle up for busy airports and possible delays.

Are airports open on Christmas Day?

Most airports are open on Christmas Day, and it can be an excellent day to travel with more affordable fares and fewer crowds. However, it’s possible that some airport shops and restaurants might be closed or have limited hours. Occasionally, certain airports may not open on Christmas Day. For example, the Dublin Airport closes every year on Christmas Day.

Are flights cheap on Christmas Day?

While it’s not an exact science, flights can be more affordable on Christmas Day since most people already want to be at their destination to celebrate the holiday. The best thing to do is search for flights using flexible dates and see which dates and times are most affordable and work with your schedule.

What is the most traveled holiday of the year?

Thanksgiving and Christmas are some of the busiest times to travel, but so are Labor Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July. The end of July is also a popular time to travel.

Is the day after Christmas a busy travel day?

The day after Christmas and the days leading up to Christmas are busy days at airports and on the road. You can save money and avoid crowds by traveling on alternative dates.

Is the day after Thanksgiving a busy travel day?

In most cases, the day after Thanksgiving isn’t as busy as the Sunday after Thanksgiving or the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. However, holiday weekends can be busy times to travel in general, so you may encounter more crowds, longer lines, and delays during these times of the year.

Lori Zaino's image

About Lori Zaino

Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lanka, Sicily, and Myanmar.

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