Now that you've survived the dreaded Thanksgiving travel weekend, it's time to start preparing for the next busiest period: year-end travel. And though Christmas doesn't see the same volume of travelers as Thanksgiving (the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the number of long distance trips increases by 54 percent around Thanksgiving; Christmas and New Year's only see a 23 percent upsurge), it's still a hectic time to travel.
In an effort to help you get through this busy season, U.S. News talked with several travel experts for tips on improving the experience. Last week, we got the scoop from CheapOair.com on preparing for and dealing with weather-related flight delays, and this week we talked to Courtney Scott, senior editor for Travelocity.com. Her No. 1 piece of advice? "Be as armed and prepared as possible when heading into holiday travel." Here are some crucial tips for dealing with all aspects of year-end air travel.
Avoiding holiday travel headaches starts long before you get to the airport. Scott advised shipping your gifts at least a week before you depart -- the cost of shipping is ultimately cheaper than those checked baggage fees, so why not sidestep the hassle? Plus with just a carry-on, you don't need to worry about the airline losing your luggage. If you do need to check a bag, consider paying the fee online before you get to the airport. Some airlines, such as Sun Country, Spirit and Frontier, offer discounted checked bag fees for customers who pay when they check in online.
Scott also recommended prepaying for airport parking. Companies like Park N' Fly and AirportParkingReservations.com allow you to reserve parking spots and pay ahead of time, meaning you won't have to waste time circling the lot in search of an empty spot. Some of these services also offer competitive rates that are lower than those offered in the airport's long-term lot on your departure date. You should also check to see if the airport offers a discounted prepaid option directly through its website, such as the one offered by Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Ready your smartphone
Your smartphone is your best tool for holiday air travel. Scott recommended downloading the My TSA mobile app, which has a "Can I Bring?" feature that allows users to search if an item is permitted or prohibited. Use this while you're packing to avoid delays at airport security. If you're a frequent flier, you're probably already using the FlightAware website and app, but its Misery Map is especially useful during frequent winter storms. The map shows worldwide cancellations and delays, an important tool if you're flying from or to an area hit with winter weather. If you do encounter a delay, GateGuru can help you monitor the status of your flight and point you in the direction of airport amenities with its AirportCard feature, which also includes a map. And if you don't already have the Uber app, now's the time to get it. Scott suggested using the app if you need a cab during off hours, when airport taxis may be scarce. Another bonus: All of these are free to download.
Scott also advised adding emergency travel numbers to your phone, including the airline reservation and customer service lines, and if you used third-party booking sites like Expedia or Priceline, the numbers for them as well. If you booked your ticket through these sites, their agents may be able to find an alternate flight for you should your trip get delayed or canceled. While it's easy to look these up on the fly -- especially with the ubiquity of free airport Wi-Fi -- having the numbers already plugged in to your phone can save you precious time.
Get to the airport early
This may sound like a no-brainer, but getting to the airport at least two hours ahead of your flight is essential, according to Scott. Remember that mile-long security line at Chicago's Midway Airport the Sunday after Thanksgiving? We're guessing those passengers wished they had more time to get through security. Plus, according to a new report from the U.S. Travel Association, 13 of the nation's largest 30 airports already experience Thanksgiving-like traffic once a week. Allow yourself plenty of time to get to your gate by checking in online as soon you receive the reminder email from your airline. This is especially critical if you're flying with an air carrier that determines seats or boarding groups by check-in time (like Southwest Airlines, for example). It's one less stress you'll have to worry about the day of your trip.
Know your options
That old military axiom "the best defense is a good offense" couldn't be truer for holiday air travel. It may be a bit time consuming, but mapping out a plan B can save you some scrambling should your flight get delayed or canceled. Scott suggested looking up and jotting down alternative flights before your trip gets disrupted. If you know which backup itineraries work best for you, you can suggest them to the airline representative rebooking you.
And if you're worried that you could get stranded at the airport, check to see if there are any airport hotels nearby, and their availability and pricing. This is where tools like HotelTonight, Hotels.com and LastMinuteTravel.com come in handy.
Once you've survived the holiday travel season, why not reward yourself with a vacation? Next week, we discuss why traveling should be your No. 1 New Year's resolution, with input from Joe Diaz, co-founder and chief product officer for AFAR Media.