I have an intense love-hate relationship with holiday travel. It is the best because it is one of the only times that most working people or full-time students, like myself, can travel without taking time off from work or school. However, it is also the worst because this reason applies to a large part of the population, which means holiday travel is a particularly crowded and chaotic rendezvous. I’ve come up with some tips from my (often failed) experiences that I’ve learned from over the years to make holiday travel easier and more relaxed. Before I begin my list, my first and most important travel tip on surviving the holidays is to choose your destination wisely. If you choose to visit tropical islands for winter vacations, it will be more expensive and more crowded. Don’t be afraid to choose places that seem odd to visit just because they are off season (see our post, Reasons Why We Love Off-Season Travel, for more information on that topic). However, if you do find yourself travelling to a popular vacation destination during the holidays, here is my ultimate guide to surviving holiday travel.
1. PACK LIGHT
Packing light will save you an enormous amount of headache, especially during the holiday season. Try to pack everything into a carry-on, and you can avoid long lines to drop off your checked luggage and long waits to pick up your luggage. You will also save yourself the worry that your luggage will get lost or damaged. Carry-ons are safer because they always stay with you! Check out our post on tips for packing light here. If you do choose to check your luggage, make sure your essentials (medication, charger, etc.) are easily accessible on your carry-on. Another thing to remember when packing is to refrain from wrapping your presents until you reach your destination because it will only cause unnecessary complications if security finds this suspicious and unwraps it.
2. BRING SNACKS
Either bring snacks for the plane or eat a substantial meal before flying. Airport food is typically more expensive and during the holiday season, there will be extremely long lines for food. Ensure that the snacks you bring comply with policies about what is allowed to be taken on a plane. Again, you never know what may happen with your flight status and everything is always easier to deal with on a full stomach.
You never know who you’ll have to deal with at the airport and on the airplane, so don’t forget to bring headphones or earplugs to tune out any unwanted noises and keep yourself calm with music or podcasts you want to listen to. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck next to a crying baby for 10 hours and not having headphones to drown out the noise!
4. STAY JUICED
Make sure that all your devices are charged or bring a portable charger (I would highly recommend doing this!) because there may not be any free outlets with the large volume of people in the airport. Bring an e-reader, physical book, or other form of entertainment to keep yourself busy at the airport in case of flight delays or in case you’re not interested in the entertainment provided on the airplane.
5. PLAN WISELY
Book flights that are early in the day or late at night. Flights that arrive at your destination at nighttime are usually not worth your while because you are paying for a hotel in a place where you’re just going to arrive and go to bed. Booking flights at unpopular times will also make them cheaper, and I would highly recommend doing this because many unpopular flights are overnight trips. Overnight trips are worth it financially because you won’t have to pay extra for accommodation and can still enjoy the entire day at your destination. If you have a layover, make sure that you have a solid knowledge of the airport floorplan so you can quickly get to your next flight.
READ MORE: Winter Weekends to Travel on a Budget
I would highly recommend enrolling in a precheck program such as Global Entry or Nexus. I am enrolled in Nexus, and Diana is enrolled in Global Entry, and both have saved us an enormous amount of time waiting in line at security or in customs. With either of these, you can go into a special pre-check security line where it isn’t required to take off your shoes, take your laptop out of your bag, or remove your liquids. You can also go through customs much faster in the United States and Canada. These programs are generally pretty easy to join. You need to submit an online application, pay a fee ($50 for Nexus and $100 for Global Entry), and go to an interview in which they ask basic questions.
The first thing to do before a holiday trip is to check in online. This is one of the simplest ways to save time because it is one less line that you need to wait in at the airport during the busy holiday season. You can begin checking in online for almost every airline 24 hours before your flight. Do this at the beginning of the 24 hours if you are travelling with family and want to get seats together, or if you’re traveling alone and want to get an aisle/window seat. The next step is to check your flight status before leaving the house on the day of the trip. There are many apps you can use to stay connected such as Gate Guru and Flight Status. The holiday season makes way for many possible flight changes, cancellations, and other issues like employee strikes. My thanksgiving trip has already consisted of one complete flight cancellation and one flight change to a different flight eight hours earlier, and it is highly likely that more things like this could happen during such a busy season! If your flight gets cancelled like mine, immediately call your airline or third party provider that you booked your ticket through and be prepared to stay on the phone for as long as you need until you get booked on a new flight. Do your research beforehand, and have alternative airlines and routes in mind before calling so you can propose alternative bookings and will know if the agent is misleading you about the lack of flights.
2. LEAVE EXTRA TIME
Always allot more time than you believe is necessary for the airport lines. I am the type of traveller who arrives at the airport 20 minutes before takeoff, and a stressful series of events ensues every time (which is ironic because I’m currently writing this in an airport with two hours to spare! I’m changing my ways). While I usually make my flight just in time, the holiday season is not to be messed with. From the minute you leave your house, there will likely be more traffic driving to the airport, more people waiting in security lines, customs lines, etc. Do not cut it close, because airlines will also be less accommodating with offering alternate flights or changes when they have countless other people having the same problems. If you arrive early, you can also take advantage of airport amenities. There are even 9 airports that have yoga rooms for customer use!
1. BOOK IN ADVANCE
Tourist attractions in any major vacation spot will inevitably have an exponentially higher number of people booked during the holidays than during the regular season. Because of this, it is important to make reservations in advance for activities that allow it. Similarly, if an activity allows online ticket booking, I would highly recommend it. The lines for purchasing tickets at the site of the attraction will be uncomfortably long and can be easily avoided by purchasing your tickets online in advance. I experienced this the hard way on a trip with my family to Iceland. We didn’t even go during the holiday season, but we still were not able to go to the Blue Lagoon because all the tickets had been booked online for the day we had planned on going. Always check for this because it will save you a lot of time and potential disappointment!
Timing is everything! Absolutely do not visit popular attractions at peak times. These times typically occur during noontime, afternoon, and the evening. This seems like an obvious tip, but enough people don’t follow it that there are such extreme peaks in the number of people visiting places at popular times. It will be more than worth your while to wake up earlier on your trip to hit the most well-known places. If you visit tourist sights early in the morning during the holiday season, you will probably still find yourself there with the same amount of people that would normally be there at peak times during the off-season. This, however, is still better than visiting the sights with enough people to populate a small city around you. You will be able to enjoy the attraction more and get those pictures in without accidental photobombers!
3. BE CREATIVE
Do your research on the place you are visiting beyond the popular tourist destinations. Find local guides on places to go that are off the beaten path. There will not be as many tourists there and you will be able to meet more locals. This will help you get a better sense of the place you are visiting and gain more from your travels. Local places bring out the essence of any and every place, and they will often become the highlight of your trip over more well-known attractions.
4. HAVE A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
No trip is complete without a positive attitude! You are going to have amazing experiences, even if there are little bumps along the way. Remember this, and enjoy your trip to the fullest!
The ultimate way to survive holiday travel is to plan well in advance and to avoid being in places at times where everyone else will also be there. Following these tips will help you have a more relaxed trip with less stressful moments. It will also help you enjoy your trip more as you delve into local culture and lifestyle. With that said, Happy (early) Thanksgiving and have a safe and wonderful holiday season!
Author: Hope Chen
Student at the University of Michigan with an insatiable desire to travel. I blog about budget travel for students, my spontaneous adventures, and occasionally an outburst about global politics as it relates to travel. Currently planning for another summer in Germany – this time in Berlin.
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