Holiday season travel survival guide

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

Holiday season travel survival guide 2

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. Compareprices 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

Serious girl trying to find room for all the things in trunk

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.