Well, it’s finally here: that time of year when the hellscape that is the holiday travel season descends upon us all. Even those of us who love to travel (“Adore it!”) fill with dread at the very thought of taking a trip between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
The massive amount of people, the long lines, and the annoying questions requiring repetitive explanation of your own identity — all within a confining space with inadequate airflow — and that’s just the family get-togethers! Flying there and back can be even more painful.
So why not get it over with quicker? Sure, travel is “all about the journey,” but holiday travel isn’t. Here are four strategies that you can adopt to speed up your holiday travel.
Find the Fastest Airline/Route/Airport for Your Trip
Okay, so you’re probably going to do what you always do when you book your flight home for the holidays: plug in the destinations and take whatever flights come up, right? Wrong! If you want to get through the torture that is holiday air travel in the least amount of time you’re going to need to find the fastest way to fly with the least amount of delays.
First off, find a flight without any layovers. It may sound obvious, but hey there’s a reason it’s the one of the top pieces of advice for quick airline travel. Nonstop flights, those that fly directly to your destinations, are best, but if one isn’t available try to get a direct flight that will make stops but won’t require you to get off the plane.
You should also look into flying through smaller airports. Hubs like LAX see so much traffic that flight delays and long lines for security screening are pretty much a given, but less massive airfields, like Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport or Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (which are both under just 40 minutes from LAX), don’t usually have such problems…or at least to the degree of their behemoth counterparts.
You can also look up your route on FiveThirtyEight’s fastest flight analysis and find out which airlines fly it fastest. And if you’re trying to decide between specific flights, you can use FlightStats.com to compare their “on time performance” ratings.
Fly on the Right Day & at the Right Time
Another key point to look at when booking your holiday travel flights is when you fly. You know all those crowds that pack airports around the holidays? Yeah, you don’t want to deal with them. More people means the more time it’s going to take to get where you’re going.
The busiest travel days around Thanksgiving are the Wednesday before and the Sunday afterwards, so the best way to avoid the crowds is to use an extra vacation day or two and fly out Monday or Tuesday and then head back Friday or Saturday (if you’re stuck with vacation days to burn, you even might want to consider booking your return flight for Monday).
For Christmas and New Year’s, the busy travel days tend to be two days before the holidays (December 23 and 30), so avoid flying on those days. Other days to avoid are the ones right after the holidays (December 26 and January 1). Again, extra vacation days will come in handy here to pad your trip and travel before and after the crowds. Although if you’re limited by how much time you can take off work, you might want to consider flying on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or New Year’s Eve, since those days will likely be less busy. Another good idea is to bypass any travel plans for a Sunday right after a holiday (this rule is a little softer if one of the above-mentioned days falls on a Sunday), since most people will likely be racing to be back at the office by Monday.
Finally, make sure you book your flight as early in the day as possible. The earlier you fly, the less likely you are to experience any delays.
Get Your Baggage Sorted Ahead of Time
What do you call those people who waste time waiting around the baggage carousel for their luggage to come tumbling out? That’s right: suckers. If you want to move fast during your holiday travel then you’re going to need to pack light. As George Clooney explained in Up in the Air (if a Hollywood film is to be believed as credible source of accurate information), checking your bag adds an average of 35 minutes to your travel time. So stick to carry-ons for your baggage, folks! You can use this helpful chart to find the dimensions for carry-on by airline and make sure your bag fits before you head to the airport.
Don’t think you can fit a few days worth of clothes in a carry-on? See what we have to say about that sorry excuse.
If you can’t fit all your stuff into your carry-on (like Christmas gifts on the return leg), think about saving space by mailing excess items to yourself. It’ll probably be cheaper than some of the fees to check baggage.
But if you NEED to check luggage, then pre-check it online. The airlines that offer this feature often allow fliers to hand over their pre-checked bags at the curb when they pull up or with a designated kiosk (the one that usually doesn’t require much of a wait time). Pre-checking luggage will save you from having to stand in another line and will definitely shave some minutes off your trip.
Come Prepared and You’ll Race Through the Airport
Obviously, the big hold up for any holiday trip is going to be the long lines made up of your fellow travelers. So if you want to seriously speed up your travel time, which will also reduce the time of those behind you (because…hey, it is the season of giving), then you need to do some stuff before you even leave the house.
First, sign up for TSA Precheck (or, its official name: TSA Pre✓®), because while the program’s formal spelling is ridiculous, its benefits are no joke. According to the TSA, last month fliers who were registered with Precheck waited on average no more than 5 minutes to get through TSA screenings (FIVE MINUTES!!!). And there may still be time to join before this year’s holiday travel season. The process (which costs $85, but is valid for five years) requires filling out an online form and then going to a TSA location (there are over 350 in the US) for a ten-minute in-person background check. It should then only take you two weeks to get a “Known Traveler Number,” which you then enter when you purchase your tickets (or call your airline to have entered to any prior made reservations). Just a heads up, not all airlines or airports participate in Precheck, so confirm on TSA.gov that you can actually use it for your trip.
You should also make sure that you’re not packing anything that might get in trouble with the screeners. The TSA has a helpful list of items that they don’t allow, which would hold you up if found in your luggage (hint: leave your lucky brass knuckles at home), including the permissible sizes of liquids you can have in your carry-on.
And be sure to wear slip-on shoes and a belt that you can take off quickly (maybe even one that’s non-metal and you don’t have to remove it) on the days you fly. You don’t want to waste time (or draw some angry glares from passengers behind you in line) unlacing and re-lacing your Timberlands as you go through security.
Lastly, check in with your airline online. A lot of major carriers offer the feature that completely sidesteps dealing with an agent at the counter and allows you to print your boarding pass at home 24 hours before take off (or even just display it on your phone), so you can just stroll in straight to security and off to your gate.
Have a faster holiday travel tip that we didn’t mention? Leave it in the comments section below!