Travel Tips for the Holiday Season

Traveling these days is rarely a pleasant experience. Traveling around the holidays seems to always be exponentially worse. You take the normal travel hassles of weather delays, lost baggage, turbulence, no overhead bin space, terrible airport food and passengers who can’t follow basic instructions, multiply that by the 6 million people expected to be flying during the holidays and it’s a recipe for a headache that only a continuous stream of Tito’s and Xanax can cure. My spirit animal is George Clooney from my favorite movie Up in the Air. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out on some solid advice he gave a young Anna Kendrick when she became a road warrior like me. And while I put up pretty pedestrian numbers compared to Mr. Clooney, with over 100 flights and 150+ hotel nights a year, I figured I’d share some of my travel tips to make your holiday travel (and mine) as stress free as possible this year. 

Going on 10 years as a consulting road warrior, I’ve picked up more than a few tricks to maintain some sense of sanity while navigating my way through airports at least twice a week every week. For example, only dressing in black and wearing noise cancelling headphones at all times regardless of whether or not I’m listening to music. It makes me the least approachable person in the airport, which means not only peace and quiet, but I am NOT the type of approachable person someone tries to cut in the security line because they’re running late or someone who looks like I’ll move my seat on the plane so you can sit closer to your friend.

(TSA-Pre) Check Yourself

I realize it might be too late for this holiday season if you don’t already have TSA pre-check, but if you don’t live near a major airport you might be able to be lucky enough to get an appointment. For those traveling newbies, TSA Pre-Check lets you go through a separate security line, keep your shoes on, and electronics and toiletries in your bag. It’s only $85 and covers you for five years. If you fly international, sign up for Global Entry instead – its $100 and will get you a known traveler number too. Now, most people say they don’t “Travel enough” for TSA pre-check to be worth it. If you fly more than four times a year or through major airports, trust me, it’s worth it. Especially if you fly through major airports like Orlando where the regular security lines are filled with strollers, Disney balloons and oversized stuffed animals … and old people with lots of hidden metal in their bodies. I’ve seen security lines at airports like Chicago’s O’Hare or New York’s Laguardia over an hour long, and heard my fair share of travel nightmares from people missing flights due to unexpectedly long security lines. CLEAR is a different priority screening process that’s even faster than TSA pre-check, but its only available so far in 30 airports, so do a little research first to see what’s the best fit for you based on where you’ll travel to/from most often.

Flight Apps 

There are several travel apps that I use regularly to make air travel as smooth as possible.

Fly Delta AppFirst, download the app for whatever airline you fly. Get the mobile boarding pass, and turn notifications on. This helps with real-time updates if your flight is delayed or to let you know when boarding starts. You can easily change seats via the app and see where you stand on the upgrade list. Delta’s app is one of the best in my opinion because it has real-time tracking and updates for your checked baggage – which is nice to know that your bag has gotten on the plane, when it’s been taken off the plane and when it should be coming out on the carousel. This is a simple way to remove unnecessary stress wondering if your bag has made it, especially when you have tight connections.

FlightViewNow I have access to an exclusive version of this app called FlightMom – which is really just my mom tracking all of my flights using FlightView and alerting me at potential delays. But what I love most about this app is that you can track your inbound flights, which is the easiest way to proactively check out if your flight has the potential for a delay. You can view the airport delay map to see if certain airports have FAA delay programs in place, like many in the Northeast do during inclement weather. If I see that my 5pm flight is already delayed starting at 9am, I’ll look at where my inbound flights are coming from and that helps me decide if I need to modify my flight if I think it will result in significant delays.

Turbulence ForecastThis seems to be extra helpful for less frequent travelers who are afraid of flying or get freaked out by turbulence. You can see potential areas for turbulence and then real-time pilot reports of turbulence across the country. Even as a frequent traveler, I like to look at this before a flight to know if this is going to be a productive flight to work on, or if it’s going to benefit me more to take advantage of the free booze. And for those who are afraid of turbulence, I found this article on turbulence from The Points Guy a really helpful read.

Da Plane Da Plane! 

Not all planes are created equal. There are a few easy things to find out about your plane in advance to help you plan for an easier travel day. The most stressful thing lately about plane travel is getting your carry-on suitcase into an overhead bin since almost all airlines charge for any checked luggage. Which means more people trying to shove giant packed suitcases into tiny overhead spaces. And if you’ve packed efficiently in a carry-on, you don’t want to have to gate check your bag and waste unnecessary time at baggage claim just because you boarded later and some ding-dong has stuffed an oversized Lilo and Stitch stuffed animal in the overhead. Be in the know about your airline’s boarding group set-up and your plane size to plan on how to make sure to get your bag easily into an overhead bin.

Boarding Groups

The earlier you board the plane, the higher likelihood that you’ll get your bag in an overhead bin. Most airlines board this way:

  • People who need additional time boarding (mostly old people, babies, and a few jerkfaces who try to game the system)
  • Active military
  • People with really high status (like me)
  • People with status earned by credit cards
  • People with mediocre status
  • Steerage

JetBlue used to board from the back to the front first, which meant if you didn’t fall into one of the first three categories, you could board sooner by picking a row near the back. But now they have changed to a letter boarding system that no one has quite figured out, based on an algorithm made up of the length of the plane and seat assignments. If you can’t bring a baby or old person, some airlines allow you to pay for early boarding. Southwest allows you to pay $15 for early-bird check-in which allows you to automatically get checked in 24 hours in advance, which usually gets you in the A group at least. Knowing what type of plane you are flying on and how packed it is can help in deciding whether it’s worth it to pay for early boarding.

Plane Size

Knowing what type of plane you’re traveling on can help anticipate overhead space challenges. If you’re plane is a typical 2×2 like an Embraer 190 – the overhead bags will fit on their side, which means only 2 bags for every 4 seats, and any overpacked carry on will not fit. A larger Airbus 320 or Boeing domestic plane that has a 3×3 set up in economy, usually allows for bags to go wheels in which means more bags can fit in each overhead bin. I was recently on a new Delta Airbus that had crazy large overhead spaces and even super jam packed bags fit with no issue. If you’re flying a shorter domestic route and end up on a regional jet – such as a CRJ900 – these planes force you to gate check your bag, which means you drop it off on the jetbridge, and pick it up there – no baggage claim needed. This is my regular aircraft for my weekly commute, and means I don’t need to rush to board early, and I usually stuff my suitcase pretty full with no worry. The only downside is that you’ll lose your faith in humanity when waiting to pick up your bag on the jetbridge since not-frequent travelers never seem to follow basic rules of lining up in the order you get off the plane to get their bag. You can check out your plane set-up and preferred seats that are available from SeatGuru.

Credit Card Perks

Before you travel, make sure to check out your credit cards to understand if you qualify for any travel perks. Many airline credit cards allow for free checked bags and better boarding groups. Some non-airline specific cards allow for other benefits like the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, gets you status with National Rental Car and access to Priority Pass Lounges, which are definitely a nice perk when you are delayed or get to the airport really early. If you’re in the market for a new travel credit card, check out some of the credit card comparisons from The Points Guy to help make your decision. My primary card is the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which has a LOT of perks for frequent travelers. This matrix is helpful in comparing some of the card options.

Travel Essentials

In addition to the tips above, there are a few items that I linked to in my Holiday Gift Guide | For The Traveler post last year that I definitely recommend for any kind of traveler. You can read all the details in that post, but my top 3 MUST haves for travel are:

  • Noise Cancelling Headphones! – These became essential for surviving a weekly Orlando commute. These Bose headphones are my go-to for flights and fit nicely into my purse.
  • Quality Carry-On: You don’t have to spend $500 on a nice carry-on suitcase, but just get a quality one that won’t be falling apart after a few uses. My Briggs & Reilly is worth every penny, and fits into overhead space with no issue. I love the garment bag side of the suitcase so I keep all my work clothes on hangers and fill the other side with everything else.
  • Portable Charger: Not all airlines have power outlets on them still, so you don’t want to find yourself without a charge, especially on a long flight. I am a big fan of all Anker products and always carry this portable charger with me.

So that’s it. Hopefully these tips  will help to make your holiday travel a little bit easier this year. And mine, since I’ve got 10 more flights to round out this year, so the more people who know their way around the airport the better. And if all else fails, remember there’s always Tito’s.