The holidays make for one of the busiest travel seasons in the U.S. as Americans trek to destinations all over the country to be home for the holidays or set off on end-of-the-year adventures, all while combating high airfares, crowds and a dash of general seasonal stress in the process.

But traveling during the holidays doesn’t have to turn you into the Grinch. With a little planning and the right attitude, you can survive any crowded airport or travel delay the season brings your way. And we have you covered with our holiday season travel survival guide.

Chock full of tips, tricks and holiday travel cheer, our guide dishes out budget travel advice, booking tips, advice on how to travel with Christmas gifts, and how to avoid holiday season travel mistakes. Happy travels for an even happier holiday season!

Booking tips
Packing tips
Traveling with gifts
Before you leave the house
Navigating the airport
More holiday reading

Booking tips


Don’t procrastinate. It may sound obvious, but starting early is the best way to get the flights you want for less, especially during the in-demand holiday season when there is little flexibility in terms of dates.

Do your research. Just like you would for holiday gifts, shop around for flights. Compare prices to see what’s out there, but if you find an exceptional deal jump on it. Airlines must offer you the chance to hold a price or cancel a purchase on any non-refundable ticket bought at least seven days in advance for 24 hours after purchase. Use that time to see if there are any better deals out there or to give yourself peace of mind that you found a great deal.

Follow the deals. Make sure you’re following airlines and travel deals sites on social media and sign up for their newsletters. Often times, if flash sales pop up or deals are announced, you’ll be the first to know.

Consider alternatives. Be flexible wherever you can, whether it’s with your travel dates, departure and/or arrival airport, or destination. If you’re heading home for the holidays, for example, your destination may be set in stone, but can you fly a few days early or, perhaps, on the actual holiday to save? Is it cheaper to fly into a nearby airport than the one in a major city? Considering all your options can save you money, but it can also save you the stress of holiday crowds.

Keep numbers handy. Have the numbers for your airline, hotel, car rental company and other travel vendors handy so you can call quickly in case of an issue.

Packing tips

Stick to a carry-on bag. Save time at the airport by packing everything in one carry-on bag. If you can manage with a small, well-organized carry-on, that’s your best bet as you can skip the baggage check-in (and, in most cases, fees) all together. However, this is not the time of year to try to get through security and onto a plane with excess or over-sized bags in hand. The overhead bins will be overflowing and the gate agents, TSA officials and your fellow passengers will not be in generous moods if you are slowing the boarding or security process with overloaded bags or hands.

Bring an extra (empty) bag. For gifts you receive, bring a folded up duffel bag so you have the option of packing gifts to go. If you can get away with one checked bag and one carry-on on the return, it might be the most affordable way to get your holiday bounty home.

Wear your heavier clothing. If you’re packing an overcoat or heavy sweater for your trip, try to wear these rather than packing them to save space in your suitcase.

Pack a snack. Long lines at airport restaurants and shops means you could be waiting a long time to grab some grub. Pack your own snacks to get you through layovers, delays and the flight. Plus, it’s typically cheaper than buying food at the airport.

Invest in hand sanitizer. The most wonderful time of the year is also the most sniffly time of the year for many travelers. Keep that in mind before you head for the airport, and pack plenty of hand sanitizer to help fend off germs. There’s nothing worse than realizing during ascent that you’re stuck in a cabin full of recycled air with a sickly seatmate.

Bring non-electronic entertainment for possible delays at the airport. Travel delays are common during the holiday season, which means you and the other hundreds of people on your flight will be facing off for the very limited number of power outlets at the gate. If your smartphone or laptop dies and you can’t recharge it, you’ll be glad you brought a book, a deck of card or a few Sudoku puzzles to keep you entertained.

Keep all the essentials with you. Anything you need to be accessible (such as medication) should be in your carry-on. Don’t put these in your checked bags because a delay could mean you won’t have access to these items for longer than expected. Read more on our tips for traveling with medication.

Don’t forget the headphones or earplugs. There’s a good chance you’ll want to drown out the noise that comes with the holiday travel season, whether it’s in the terminal or on the plane. Stash headphones and earplugs in your carry-on.

Bring a travel pillow. This will come in handy on the flight; and in the event your flight is delayed or canceled, you’ll be a little bit more comfortable while waiting at the gate. Consider these unique and cozy options.

Traveling with gifts

Ship gifts, don’t pack them. Packing gifts in your luggage often forces you to check bags at the airport and also takes up valuable suitcase space. Skip the hassle and ship Christmas presents ahead of time so they’ll be there when you arrive.

If you have to pack gifts, pack well. Use plenty of padding (such as bubble wrap, towels or sweaters) to protect presents from rough handling. Also make sure they fit snugly in your suitcase without room to move around.

Don’t wrap gifts. If you do bring Christmas gifts with you when you travel, just remember to save the wrapping until you arrive so you and your luggage can get through the security screening. Security will likely need to unwrap the gifts to inspect them.

Peruse duty-free International fliers over the holidays have the opportunity to savor their layovers a bit in the duty-free shops, where high-end products go for everyday prices in airports around the globe. Hubs like Hong Kong International Airport, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and London Heathrow Airport offer shoppers a bounty of stocking stuffers and goodies for under the tree. Shop on your way – or way home – tax-free. A friendly reminder: If you’re connecting Stateside from certain international locations, liquids purchased at duty-free have to be checked before the domestic leg of your flight.

Don’t get in a jam. While nothing is less threatening than your grandmother’s homemade jam, it is still considered a gel and will be held to the 3-1-1 rule of carry-on luggage. All liquids and gels must be stored in 3 ounce containers and contained in one quart-sized, clear zip-top bag. Consider shipping jellies and jams, along with gifts, to avoid having to throw away your coveted holiday jams pre-flight.

Easy as pie. Pies, cookies, and other foods are allowed as carry-on no matter the consistency. Just be prepared for a more meticulous inspection of these goods, and the owner of them.

Before you leave the house

Stay healthy. You’ll need to think on your feet when it comes to making last-minute travel decisions – the last thing you want to be is sick. Start getting a good night’s sleep two or three nights before your flight, so that even if you’re up late the night before, you’re still generally rested. Lack of sleep can also make you more susceptible to getting sick from crowds of travelers at the airport or on planes, so get your shut-eye, carry sanitizer, and consider (with your doctor’s approval) taking immunity-boosting supplements, like Airborne or Echinacea a few days before your trip. If all else fails, troubleshoot common health issues while traveling with our tips.

Check your flights ahead of time. This seems like common sense, but with your mind in a dozen different places pre-flight you’re likely to forget to check your flight status. Word to the wise: take the airline’s phone number with you to the airport. If there’s a last-minute delay or cancellation, call the airline directly instead of standing in line with hundreds of other stranded travelers hoping to get re-booked on a later flight.

Check in online. Most airlines let you check in on their website or on your smartphone. Take advantage of this to skip the check-in lines at the airport. Since cancellations are normal, airlines often overbook flights. Unfortunately, this can mean people get bumped from a flight when everyone actually shows up. Check in as early as possible (some airlines allow you to check in 24 hours in advance on their websites) to secure your seat.

Charge all your devices before you leave. Before leaving the house, make sure your phone and other electronics have a full charge. You may have to turn them on at security, and you’ll want to be able to communicate with friends and family to coordinate airport pick ups and drop offs. Charging stations are available at most U.S. airports, but may be hard to come by during busy holiday travel times.

Leave earlier than you think you should. Really early – early enough to feel silly for doing so. Even if you’re waiting at the airport for a long time, at least you’ll be through security and can unwind with one of the many items in your carry-on, or explore the shops and restaurants in the airport. The priority here should be getting to your destination with as little chaos as possible, and the earlier you arrive, the more likely it is that will happen.

Have someone drive you to the airport. Don’t deal with the stress (and expense) of trying to park in a crowded lot. Either have a friend drive you or arrange for public transportation.

Navigating the airport

Use travel apps. Airline apps on your smartphone let you easily access up-to-date flight information, so you’ll know about delays ahead of time. Apps like GateGuru give you gate information, security wait times and in-terminal dining options, too.

Take the family lane. If you are anxious about being rushed through security by impatient travelers, consider taking the “family lane.” Airports with more than one security line have one of these designated lanes, and you don’t even need a family to use them: anyone requiring some extra time getting through security can wait in the family lane. Whether it’s due to special needs, or you want to avoid dirty looks from hurried travelers behind you, the family lane is the place for you.

Call the airline. In the event of a travel delay, don’t join the crowds at the airline counter. Instead, call the airline directly for faster service.

Keep a positive attitude. Eventually, it will work out. Maintain a smile, make friends with other travelers and trust that in the end, you’ll make it to your destination. This is one of the busiest times to travel. Airports around the country are preparing for packed flights and long lines. Give yourself plenty of time, plan ahead and follow our 16 rules of airport “airtiquette.”

Have a wonderful holiday season and enjoy your flight! Yes, Virginia, it’s true…even travel during the holidays can be enjoyable.

More holiday reading

How to find cheap Christmas flights and travel deals
Holiday or vacay: Trading seasonal traditions for travel
Holiday decorations in cities around the world
The best airports for shopping
Christmas-themed locales in the U.S.

There’s no time like the present to start planning your holiday travel.

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What are your go-to holiday travel tips? Share them with us in the comments.

Main image: istockphoto/svetikd

About the author

Marissa WillmanMarissa Willman earned a bachelor's degree in journalism before downsizing her life into two suitcases for a teaching gig in South Korea. Seoul was her home base for two years of wanderlusting throughout six countries in Asia. In 2011, Marissa swapped teaching for travel writing and now calls Southern California home.

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