10 tips for surviving holiday travel this season

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.

We are in the midst of the holiday travel season, and even though there are fewer travelers this year than what we’ve seen in the past, you’ll still find some airports to be quite busy. And even though there are fewer passengers flying, airlines are consolidating flights so there is a good chance you could end up on a near-full flight on the peak travel days.

With this sort of influx, mixed with a time of social distancing and new travel rules, the most wonderful time of the year can very quickly become the most stressful time of the year at the airport, and many travelers will have little ones along for the journey.

This logjam of holiday flyers will probably result in overcrowding, longer lines and some tense moments, especially if winter weather doesn’t cooperate and delays or cancellations become an issue. But your family doesn’t have to be the one succumbing to stress at the check-in counter with an overweight bag, dealing with banned items in the TSA line or racing through the terminal frantically trying to catch a flight. Instead, you and your loved ones can be the travelers relaxing in an airport lounge and expertly avoiding bag fees — with a solid backup plan in the event of an issue with flight operations.

Related: How to save serious cash on holiday travel

In This Post

The right credit card can help

It might be too late to add a new credit card to your wallet to help make your holiday travel easier or potentially more affordable, but it’s not too late to see if you already have the right credit card — or plan for next time. Some credit cards protect you from bag fees, while others help you earn elite status faster, give you credits to use on inflight Wi-Fi, upgrade your boarding position or include a statement credit for your onboard purchases.

For example, having the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card gets you and your traveling companions a free checked bag on Delta flights. Having the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card reimburses you for Wi-Fi purchases on Southwest Airlines (up to 365 credits per year) and also snags you four upgraded boarding positions per year, just in case that perfect Southwest seat is your goal.

Related: How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines

There are also credit cards that get you access to airport lounges or cover the cost of a meal at the airport — both of which are much better ways to spend time before or between flights than sitting at the gate. If you do get a last-minute credit card with a Priority Pass membership, you can still use a digital membership card at most eligible lounges. A last-minute The Platinum Card® from American Express with an instant card number should also do the trick to get you into an American Express Centurion Lounge or other partner lounges including Priority Pass Select, Delta Sky Clubs (on same-day Delta flights) and Airspace and Escape lounges.

Related: Best Priority Pass lounges in the US

Go early

You might not want to spend any extra time in a public space — especially a crowded airport — than you have to right now, but when flying on peak travel dates you should probably get to the airport early to ensure everything runs smoothly. Nothing induces intense and immediate stress faster than running late for your flight — especially in today’s world. You’ll also want to allow enough time for potential traffic and airport delays.

Taking the first flight of the morning is a good idea, too. Those early a.m. flights are the most likely to depart on time, so get a jump on the day and book the early bird. If you notice bad weather forecast for your travel date, then getting out in the morning can be even more important. Here are a few tips for changing your flights for free.

Be strategic about checking versus carrying on

During the holidays, some travelers swear by the mantra of “stay calm by not carrying on.” While I vastly prefer to carry on my bags 95% of the time, there is some logic to checking everything you can, especially if you have kids to chase after in the airport. If you check your bags, your hands are free, you don’t need to worry about early boarding — as overhead bin space isn’t a problem — and you don’t have to stress as much over the security screening process and whether you need to pull out half your items to place them in bins.

While checking bags can slow you down a little, it can also result in some bonus free miles if the bags are slow to come down to baggage claim. If you really want to push the easy button, you can even skip baggage claim completely and have your checked bags delivered to your final destination.

Consider shipping your stockings

While strategically checking or carrying on a bag will work in most cases, there are circumstances where shipping packages to your final destination can be even easier — and sometimes, cheaper. If checking your bags would subject you to oversized baggage fees, then shipping can be a smart decision. Try the site LugLess to price and purchase shipping for your belongings (or presents), whether you want DIY drop-off or doorstep pickup and delivery.

Gallery: Best airline loyalty programs, according to readers (USA TODAY)

Related: TPG’s best travel suitcases for 2020

Know the TSA rules for holiday items

Can you bring wrapped presents through security? Yes, technically, but it’s a bad idea in the event TSA agents need to inspect what’s inside. Traveling with a snow globe? Make sure that the liquid is 3.4 ounces or less and it can fit in a quart-sized, resealable plastic bag. (So really, don’t carry on that snow globe.)

You can bring a fruitcake, sufganiyot or cookies through security, too, but you may want to put food in its own tray for inspection.

CLEAR security in a flash

On peak travel days, TSA PreCheck isn’t always enough to get you through security as fast as you’d like even if you left the snow globes at home. (I’m looking at you, Denver and Newark.) If you want the one-two punch of having all available expedited security options, consider getting Clear. Here’s our guide to getting and using Clear. You can even wait and apply for Clear when you’re at the airport if you see the regular security line crawling along slower than you like, so you don’t have to commit in advance. Just keep in mind that some TSA PreCheck and Clear lanes are closed due to COVID-19 changes to airport operations.

If you have the American Express® Green Card, be sure to use it to purchase Clear, as it comes with a $100 annual statement credit for the program. Also remember that kids can use Clear for free with you, and additional adults can be added to your main plan for just $50 per year.

Tip: Get Clear for a discounted rate of $149 for 12 months using code TPG149 or get a two-month free trial of Clear using code TPG2M.

The information for the Amex Green Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Lounge around

The airport lounges of today aren’t just for the elite: They’re for the savvy. So, don’t find yourself stuck out at the gate. Get yourself into a lounge on your holiday trip instead and enjoy some complimentary food, beverages and maybe even a quick massage.

If the whole family is flying for the holidays, you might want to specifically seek lounges that have family rooms, such as select Amex Centurion Lounges.

If you’re just looking for the best places to lounge, here are the top Priority Pass lounges in the U.S. — and how a card you might already have in your wallet could get you access. Cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® or The Platinum Card® from American Express will do the trick.

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

BYO onboard essentials

Here are some tips for packing like a pro — as well as some specifically tailored to parents traveling with littles. But whether you’re flying solo or with a basketball team’s worth of kiddos, you need to consider bringing your own food, comfort items and entertainment on board. Some airlines are better than others at providing some (or all) of those amenities, but it’s best to be self-reliant — especially if you’re traveling in economy.

Although many airlines are starting to resume their inflight food and beverage service, with ever-changing rules, you’ll want to be 110% prepared.

Grab headphones, a neck pillow, snacks and something to keep you occupied and you’ll be all set, even if the airline doesn’t have anything to offer you beyond a small seat.

Related: These are the best US airlines for family travelers

Wear the right face mask

Due to COVID-19, all airports and U.S. domestic airlines are requiring those 2 and older to wear a face mask — no exception. Because of this, you’ll want to make sure you have an approved mask for every family member. You’ll also want to make sure that everyone in your family — including your little ones — are used to wearing masks for the entire length of your flight. If your children are not familiar with wearing masks, start preparing now.

Related: Do your kids have to wear face masks on the plane?

Most airlines follow the CDC guidance and require “a well-secured cloth or mask that fits snugly against the face, covers an individual’s nose and mouth, and is secured under the chin.” You’re not allowed to wear face masks with exhalation valves, those made solely of materials like mesh or lace fabrics, or those that cannot be secured under the chin such as a bandana or face shield.

If you are looking for some new face masks, check out the TPG store to purchase exclusive face masks.

Spread cheer

As hard as it can sometimes be to travel during the holidays, imagine what it’s like to work flight after flight while others are heading home to trim the tree — especially in these unprecedented times. A smile, a patient attitude and a “thank you” to crew members can go a long way. If you want to go further, Starbucks gift cards or prepackaged food items for the crew are always an extra-welcome treat.

Bottom line

The holidays are an exciting time to go home or get away, but an airport or a crowded plane aren’t always the most magical portion of the experience. But we promise you’ll survive your holiday travels by making a few strategic choices, packing your wallet appropriately and being prepared.

Additional reporting by Benet Wilson.

Featured photo by Visionkick/Getty Images

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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