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Last Minute Holiday Travel Tips

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Lines can be long and slow-moving even during slow travel period. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

With more than 45 million travelers set to fly on U.S. airlines during the  Christmas and New Year holiday season, is there anything that holiday travelers can do to lessen the stress of traveling?

The passenger rush began on Friday 16 December and will continue until Thursday 6 January.

The number of airline passengers flying during the three-week holiday season will represent an expected increase of 3.5% in passenger traffic over the same holiday period last year.

More Flights and Larger Aircraft

This represents an average increase of 73,000 airline passengers taking to the skies each day.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and jetBlue Airways are among the many domestic air carriers in the United States that will add more flights and deploy larger aircraft during the peak holiday travel period.

Collectively, U.S. airlines will add an average of 99,000 additional daily seats to handle the increase in passenger demand.

Many international airlines such as Air France, British Airways, and Aeromexico will do the same.

Top 10 Busiest U.S. Airports

The following American airports will experience the largest number of passengers during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season:

  1. Atlanta, Georgia (ATL)
  2. Chicago O’Hare, Illinois (ORD)
  3. Los Angeles, California (LAX)
  4. Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas (DFW)
  5. Denver, Colorado (DEN)
  6. Charlotte, North Carolina (CLT)
  7. Houston (Intercontinental), Texas
  8. New York, New York (JFK)
  9. San Francisco, California (SFO)
  10. Phoenix, Arizona (Sky Harbor)

Lines at airports will be long and tempers will be short. Children will be cranky and airline employees will be doing their best to cope.

Despite the unusually high demand for airline seats during the peak holiday travel period, passenger volumes will fluctuate from as few as 1.8 million airline passengers on the travel dates with the lowest demand to as many as 2.4 million airline passengers on the travel dates with the highest demand.

To put these figures in context, U.S. air carriers carry an annual average of roughly 2.2 million passengers per day.

This means airlines will actually be carrying substantially fewer passengers than usual on a few key dates during the holiday period.

Flight Scheduling Tips

Holiday travelers wanting to save money on airplane tickets should consider traveling on dates when demand for airline seats is expected to be lowest and avoid traveling on the dates when demand for airline seats is expected to be highest.

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Lines are shorter if you travel at slack travel periods. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Traveling on these dates have additional advantages. First, traffic to and from the airport tends to be lighter on these days.

Second, the lines at check-in, security, and the gate are shorter. Third, aircraft cabins will be less crowded. Fourth, flight attendants are less stressed. 

Here are some useful scheduling tips ... 

  • If you are spending a week at your travel destination, depart and return on Tuesdays rather than weekends.
  • Avoid flying on 22, 23, or 26 December or 2 January.
  • Instead fly on 19, 20, or 21 December, 3 January, or later.
  • Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day often have the lightest payloads during the holiday season.

If you have a choice of flights on the dates you decide to travel, Travel Chanel advises flying early or late in the day.

Early morning flights are less likely to be delayed, and lines at security tend to be shorter.

If your flight is canceled, you have a better chance of catching another flight departing for your destination later in the day.

Travel Reality Check

The strategy of booking an early morning flight, however, is not fool proof.

When I was still living in San Francisco, I was invited one year to spend Christmas and New Year’s with friends in Brazil.

There were no direct flights from San Francisco to Brazil at the time, so I had to travel by way of Los Angeles, and this would also require an interline connection between United Airlines, a domestic air carrier, and Varig Brazilian Airlines, a foreign air carrier.

To play it safe, I decided to book myself on the earliest morning flight scheduled to depart from San Francisco for Los Angeles.

This should have allowed about three to four hours on the ground at LAX to collect my luggage, travel between terminals, do some last minute Christmas shopping, carry out a foreign exchange transaction, and chill out before the lengthy trip to my final travel destination in Brazil.

Rare Weather Conditions

Unfortunately, a rare cold snap had sent temperatures throughout California below freezing during the wee hours of the morning I was scheduled to depart, and flights were being delayed like crazy.

To make matters worse, the aircraft being deployed on my flight was not based at SFO, but at Monterey Airport, which is about 130 miles to the south.

The aircraft was supposed to fly from Monterey to San Francisco before continuing on its way to Los Angeles.

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San Francisco International Airport on a cold winter's morning. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

While larger airports such as SFO and LAX had defrost equipment (which was seldom needed), smaller airports such as Monterey Airport did not have such equipment.

So the plane was stuck there on the airport tarmac until the temperature rose above freezing, which didn't happen until mid-morning.

The clock was slowly ticking, and I was growing increasingly anxious.

Flights for Los Angeles were departing at 30 minute intervals. Passengers were arriving at the gate after I did and boarding their flights.

First Come, NOT First Served!

Can you imagine my frustration as I watched passengers arriving at the gate significantly later than I did boarding their flights ahead of me?

Because I had an interline connection, United refused to offer me any of the available seats on the subsequent flights.

Passengers with connections on other United flights had priorty. The fact that I was connecting to an international flight was not taken into consideration.

I eventually made it to Los Angeles, hours behind schedule.

I would have missed my flight except – fortunately! – my flight from Los Angeles to Rio de Janerio was delayed, as well.

I wasn’t the only passenger whose flight had been delayed so there was a considerable backup

Holiday Packing Tips

Before you just start stuffing your stuff into the nearest suitcase …

Find out whether your airline charges for checked and/or carry-on bags. This will help you decide whether it’s better to stick with a carry-on bag or check in a suitcase.

The advantage of checking your bag is that you won’t have to drag it through the airport – and keep an eye on it while shopping or using the rest room.

Thieves are at their busiest during peak travel periods. I once had my wallet stolen on a Christmas Eve at the Macau Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong.

But you also run the risk of your luggage going astray.

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When you check in on line, Lufthansa German Airlines issues automatic luggage tags.

Sticking to carry-ons, however, means not only having to drag them from the check-in counter to the gate, you will also have to take them through security.

The advantage of carry-ons is that upon arrival, you can head straight from the gate to ground transport without having to wait at the conveyor belt at luggage claim for your bag to arrive.

Whatever you do, do NOT pack wrapped Christmas gifts in your carry-on luggage. And also check restrictions on liquids, sharp objects, and electronic devices.

When packing carry-ons, put electronic devices such as laptops and computers in a place where they can be easily removed and put back when you get to the security scanner.

The same goes for liquids and gels, which should be stored in 3 ounce containers and put in a clear zip-top bag. This bag should not be larger than  one quart.

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Carry-on luggage offers undeniable advantages if you travel light. Photo Credit: London City Airort.

I also like to bring a small pouch where I can put my small change, keys, mobile phone, and other metal objects as I pass through security.

You can also put your passport in this pouch if you are traveling to a foreign travel destination.

The advice on Christmas gifts also applies to checked luggage when you’re traveling internationally as your suitcase might be opened and inspected by airport customs agents when you get to your travel destination.

Where to Put Things

Regulations are not always consistent across the industry. So check your airline's website to see if there are any restrictions on packed electronics devices or other objects.

Some objects should be put in checked luggage rather than carry-on luggage, but there are exceptions.

I once had to make three trips through the security scanner at an airport in Indonesia. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was.

Surely there were no guns or explosives inside.

Little did I know that a battery charger was the culprit. For reasons that I don’t understand, it could be taken in my carry-on bag, but it could not be carried in my checked bag.

And double check what simply shouldn't be taken on board. Remember the uproar about the exploding Samsung device?

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When you check in your luggage,you face large crowds at baggage claim. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

If you do decide to check your bags, make sure to take a change of clothes and any medications in a carry-on just in case your bags don’t arrive when you do.

It happened to me on an afternoon flight to Bali. I wasn’t reunited with my stuff until 9 pm the following day.

One of the most frustrating parts of travel is arriving at baggage claim and trying to distinguish your suitcase from all of the other suitcases that appear similar.

How many bags are black, gray, or dark blue?

How to Make Your Luggage Stand Out

When purchasing new luggage, keep your eye out for something in a bright colour or with an unusual design.

Otherwise, tie a brightly coloured ribbon on the handle or put large stickers on the side.

This will not only help you distinguish your own bag. It will also lessen the chances that someone else will pick it up by mistake. 

If you expect to receive gifts or make purchases at your holiday destination, bring an empty bag that is fully collapsible.

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Paris Hilton carries a colourful LV suitcase, which would certainly stand out from the crowd. But would it increase chanaches of being stolen? Photo Credit: Virgin Atlantic.

I picked up colourful, inexpensive, and sturdy cloth satchel at Vancouver International Airport.

It is so lightweight that I can stuff it into the pocket of my overcoat, yet it is sturdy and roomy enough when unfolded to accommodate all of the unexpected stuff that I inevitably acquire on my travels.  

How to Dress for Security Check Points

Sure you want to look your best when traveling at Christmas, but comfort and convenience should trump style.

If you want to wear jewelry, put it in your carry on and put it on AFTER you’ve passed through security.

Wear shoes or sandals that can be easily slipped on and off. Airports in the United States usually require that you remove footwear.

Security agents often require that you remove bulky clothing such as overcoats, jackets, and sweaters so make sure that these items are loose-fitting and easy to remove and put back on.

Avoid accessories with metal. Belt buckles can be a problem. And consider what happens if you have to remove your belt.

I’ve occasionally worn baggy pants that wouldn’t stay up without a belt.

It wasn’t fun trying to keep them up with one hand while I had to struggle with my computer and other things with the other.

Pre-flight Check List

A little forward planning can pay big dividends in the long run ...

  • Check in on line, and check in as early as possible. This can usually be done 24 hours in advance of domestic flights and 48 hours of international flights. This not only saves time at the check-in counter, it also lessens your chances of getting bumped should your flight be overbooked.
  • Check SeatGuru.com before you check in for the best and worst seats and book your seat when you check in on line. All you need do is input the name of your airline and the fight number.
  • Check to make sure your flight hasn’t been postponed or – worse yet – canceled.
  • Load the airline’s phone number on to your smartphone. If a problem arises, it’s sometimes easier to communicate by phone than having to wait in line at the airline’s check-in counter.
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Airlines apps can provide updated information on cancellations and flight delays. Photo Credit: Lufthansa German Airlines.
  • Use travel apps. Airline apps can often inform you of up-to-date flight delays or cancellations. GateGuru provides information on security wait times and dining options. This can help you decide whether to rush through security – or chill out at the bar.
  • Make sure that all of your devices have been fully charged, and make sure that you’ve packed all of your chargers and other accessories. How many times have I arrived at my destination and discovered that I brought my computer, but forgot to pack my mouse? 
  • Leave home early. Allow for extra time just in case something unexcited happens.

All's Well That Ends Well

I once had trouble getting a taxi from my home in the Northern New Territories to Hong Kong International Airport. As a result, I  arrived at the check-in counter at Hong Kong International Airport a bit later than expected.

Much to my surprise, I was greeted by a nervous looking employee, who rushed up to me and asked, “Are you Mr. Taylor?”

When I said that I was, he said, “It’s a good thing you're here. If you had arrived three minutes later, we would have had to deny you boarding.”

When I tried to check my bag, he said it was too late. The plane was already being loaded.

“This young lady will escort you to the gate. You must take your bag and they will deal with it there.”

I was rushed through the employees’ line at security and taken along a circuitous "behind the scenes"  oute through hallways and up and down stairways.

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The trek from check-in counter to gate can be lengthy. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Amazingly, when I emerged from the employees’ only section of the airport, I discovered that many of the passengers that had checked in ahead of me hadn’t arrived at the gate yet.

Apparently employees have short cuts through the airport, which I guess explains why the agents that check you in at the check-in counter are often waiting for you when you get to the gate.

For me, it was a bit of an adventure, but I’m not sure all airlines would have been as accommodating as Cathay Pacific Airways was on this occasion.

I can't remember what time of year this happened. But I'm sure it wasn't during the holiday travel season.

The following sources were consulted in the preparation of this post: Airlines for America, Cheapair.com, Travel Channel, and Cheapflights.com.

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