Avoiding the Airport Holiday Blues

The following is an excerpt from our new book, 300 Healthy Travel Tips (now available on Apple iBooks, and coming in February 2017 for Amazon Kindle readers).

The holiday season brings the heaviest travel days of the year. When you are stuck in a long airport security line or running late to catch your flight, it’s hard to feel the holiday spirit. Planning ahead, allowing extra time for everything, anticipating what you will do if you are confronted with a travel nightmare, and keeping a cool head will put you miles ahead of other holiday travelers.

May your travels be safe, healthy, and carefree. Season’s greetings!

Before your flight

Three words: Get. There. Early. Ninety percent of all travel nightmares happen because of one thing: cutting it too close. Don’t. Especially during the holidays. Go online and check the status of your flight and the TSA lines. Visit a website such as WhatsBusy to get an idea of the wait times to get through airport security, and check your flight’s departure status. Doing your homework before you head to the airport can save you a world of stress.

It’s a smart idea to check on-time stats for any flights you’re booking — especially if you have a tight connection. Knowing the average delays for a flight can help you figure out how much time to allow when your air travel reservation includes connecting flights. Enter your flight number into FlightStats.com, hit Search then go to the On-Time Performance link. It will show you the percentage of times the flight is delayed, plus the average length of the delay.

If you’re driving to the airport, use a maps app or website like Google Maps to check the traffic on your route. Never assume that you will have an easy drive. If there’s traffic, get an earlier start, and know alternate routes to ensure you will make your flight on time.

Renting a car? Walk around and take pictures of it with your phone both inside and out before driving it off the lot. Increasingly, car rental agencies are billing customers for even the smallest of dings, scratches, stains, or fabric tears. Protect yourself against any surprise damage charges with photos as proof of the car’s condition when you received it.

It’s easy to forget your car’s location if you’re parking it at the airport. Solution: Use your phone to take a picture of its location in the lot or garage. Most parking lot stalls are numbered, so be sure to include that and the floor or parking lot section in your photos. It can save you a ton of time trying to find your car when you return.

Add about 45 minutes of extra time to get to your departure gate if you need to return a rental car. It’s a good idea to research the rental car return lot location, so you can determine whether you can simply walk into the airport terminal or if you will need to catch a shuttle bus.

Allow yourself at least 60–90 minutes between domestic connecting flights, and at least two (preferably three) hours for international connections. Anything less than a 45-minute connection is risky for domestic flights, especially if you have checked luggage. When connecting at large multi-terminal airports, you might have a considerable distance between terminals. Allow yourself adequate connection time to avoid stress and travel nightmares.

We strongly recommend traveling with a carry-on only. But if you must check your suitcase, confirm that the airline’s ticket agent or the skycap tags your bag with the correct three-letter airport code for your destination (such as LAX for Los Angeles International, ORD for Chicago O’Hare, etc.) before you let it go. While this should be automatic, the wrong destination code is a quick way to lose your luggage. (You weren’t planning to fly to Bolivia, now were you? We didn’t think so.) Before heading to the airport, look up the three-letter IATA code for your destination airport. If the three-letter code on your luggage tag looks fishy, ask the agent to double-check.

You can often purchase a first-class lounge day pass at the airport. Fifty bucks is money well spent for the peace and quiet, better food, Wi-Fi, TV, and in larger airports, showers and secure sleeping areas. While airport lounges come with a price, the peace of mind can be worth it during a layover. You can find and purchase access to airport lounges with the Loungebuddy phone app.

If you’re killing time waiting for your flight or on a layover, take advantage of the hidden airport amenities. An increasing number of airports now have features like yoga rooms, gyms, spas, mini-hotels (nap pods) for badly needed sleep, playgrounds, art galleries, gardens, and even therapy dogs. So if you have time on your hands, ask and explore.

Surviving TSA Hell

Air travel is experiencing a boom. More people are flying than ever before, increasing by double digits annually in each the past several years. All those travelers are overloading the biggest choke point in our airports: the security line. Adding to this perfect storm, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has not seen a budget increase in five years, and the number of screeners has actually dropped. The result: In major airports, frustrated travelers are experiencing waits as long as three hours to clear TSA security inspections, causing thousands of people to miss their flights. Pure misery.

That’s why we urge you to use these time-saving tips to help speed your way through the TSA checkpoint:

  • Have your flight boarding pass and ID ready to show to the initial TSA inspector. Pro tips: Even if you use an electronic boarding pass on your phone, make a screenshot of it in case your airline app isn’t working. Carry both an electronic and a printed boarding pass, in case the e-ticket scanner is broken at your departure gate.
  • Put all your liquids inside a quart-size Ziploc bag following the TSA 3-1-1 liquids rule and keep it in an accessible location in the top of your carry-on. 
  • If you’re bringing food for your flight, most solid foods can get through security, but liquid or gel-based foods like yogurt or apple sauce likely won’t if you are trying to bring more than the allowed 3.4 oz.
  • Save time by not wearing a belt, watch, glasses, bracelets, or jewelry. Put those in your carry-on before heading to the airport. You can wear them after you’ve cleared the security checkpoint. It’s one less thing to worry about.
  • Wearing loafers or slip-on shoes can save you time before and after you go through security. Pro Tip: Don’t go barefoot through the TSA screening to protect your feet from picking up germs from the airport floor.
  • Pro tip: Follow this smart time-saving trick used by the former Secretary of Homeland Security. If you are traveling with a sports coat or a jacket, wear it as you enter security. Pre-pack your wallet, phone, watch, gadgets, and a Ziploc bag with your spare change and keys inside your coat’s (preferably zippered) pockets. (If you’re not bringing a coat, put those items in separate Ziploc bags.)

Show your ID or other travel documents to the TSA inspector, then immediately put your ID in your pocket — don’t forget it! That way, you can keep your wallet secured inside your coat.

As you enter the TSA X-ray screening, put your things in the trays on the conveyor belt in the following order:

  • Tray 1: Your shoes and belt.
  • Tray 2: Your coat (containing your wallet, phone, keys, coins, and gadgets), with a Ziploc bag containing any liquids on top of that.
  • Tray 3: Your laptop or iPad.* (You can often keep your iPad in your bag.)
  • Tray 4: Your carry-on bag and/or computer case. (*Extra points if it’s a TSA-compliant laptop bag; if it is, you can keep your laptop in your bag.)

When you clear security, put everything back in reverse order — your shoes, then jacket. Your hands will be free to grab the bag of liquids and the computer. Put these back into your bag, which is the last item in the line. You should be able to avoid sitting down on the bench and keep moving to your gate. Smart.

Protect yourself from theft when putting your personal items and electronics on the TSA X-ray scanning conveyor belt. Don’t walk through the TSA metal detectors until you know your electronics and valuables are already in the X-ray machine. This way, you can be waiting on the other side to grab your coat and valuables instead of a thief doing that for you. And never leave your carry-on bags and valuables unattended in an airport (or train station or hotel). A surprising number of thefts occur each year in what is supposed to be a “secure” environment. Always assume that a thief or pickpocket is eyeing you when you travel.

Find the shortest TSA security lines before you arrive at the airport by looking on the web or your phone. WhatsBusy (our favorite) and MyTSA are two websites you can check to find the current security wait times for each of the TSA inspection areas at your airport. The MyTSA and MiFlight apps for iOS and Android phones can do the same thing. This way, you can pick the shortest line possible, even if it’s in another terminal. Often, taking a brief walk to another terminal will save you time getting through airport security. Before you do, check that you will be allowed through the security line for another airline. (Note: Crowdsourced wait times used by MyTSA and MiFlight can vary in accuracy, so double-check when using them.)

Another good tip to fly through TSA security is to look for lines with more solo business travelers. They’re typically better prepared, which can help you get through security faster.

Sometimes, the shortest line is not always the fastest way through airport security. Travel expert Peter Greenberg recommends looking for the line with only one TSA agent at the computer, monitoring the X-ray machine. If there are two agents at the computer, Greenberg notes it usually means the second agent is being trained. If so, each item going through the X-ray machine will be stopped and inspected more closely. Even if it means getting in the longer line, you can save time.

Use an airport-mapping phone app to find the fastest route to your departure gate from the TSA security line. Google Maps (iOS | Android) and GateGuru (iOS | Android) give you detailed maps of airport terminal building interiors around the world. Zooming in on Google Maps can even show your exact location within the airport terminal building — a big help when you’re racing to catch your flight.

When packing your bags, carefully check every nook and cranny for sharp objects, metal items, liquids, and prohibited items that would show up in a TSA X-ray. On one trip, we were embarrassed to find a Swiss Army knife in the bottom of one of our suitcase pockets, which promptly joined the thousands of other confiscated scissors and knives that the TSA gladly resells for its massive annual beer kegger fund.

Don’t bring wrapped gifts through the TSA checkpoint. Either that or prepare to sing “Happy Birthday!” while you watch the TSA inspector gleefully opening your presents. We suggest shipping gifts ahead instead.

It’s too late for the holidays, but a smart idea if you haven’t already: Enrolling in TSA Pre✓, or our favorite, Global Entry, can potentially save a ton of time by qualifying you for expedited TSA and Customs security screening. You can get fast-tracked through a special security screening lane, and you won’t have to remove your shoes, belt, or gear. It’s not perfect (that’s another story), but having TSA Pre✓ or Global Entry can be a time-saver. Pro tip: If you sign up for Global Entry, you can get TSA Pre✓ for free.

You will be stuck in your seat on the plane for several hours. So instead of sitting at the airport, get up and move. Stretch. Do some exercises — like lunges, dips, yoga exercises, and jumping jacks (hey, why not?) — use the stairs, and take a walk through the terminal. A brisk, half-hour walk before your flight at even a moderate pace can burn around 170 calories. You will thank yourself in a few hours. Just be mindful of your flight’s departure time and listen for gate change announcements.

What to Do If Your Flight is Delayed or Canceled

Know this: Airlines can delay or cancel flights. If and when they do (and trust us, they will), you’re stuck. From mechanical failures, to unavailable airport gates, air traffic control delays, crowded runways, missed connections, space alien attacks, airline computer problems, or our old friend, bad weather, delays and cancellations are a fact of life.

The bad news: When delays and cancellations happen because of bad weather, disasters, or other force majeure, airlines might not compensate you one bit, not even a voucher for a free overnight stay at a nearby hotel. This is especially true for no-frills airlines. The reason: The airlines can claim that these are factors beyond their control.

Worse, in the U.S., there is no federal law or regulation protecting passengers stipulating what rights you have if your flight is canceled. When it comes to cancellations, the airlines call the shots via their contracts of carriage. Typically, if your flight is canceled, you are guaranteed a seat on the next available flight offered by the airline or a refund of the unused portion of your ticket. Some airlines might offer to transfer you to another airline to help you reach your destination, but only at their sole discretion (and with the big three, that’s becoming much harder. Ugh.). Beyond that, you’re usually on your own.

Some good news: On the other hand, if your flight is canceled because of a problem within your airline’s control, like a mechanical problem or a crew shortage, and your airline can’t put you on an available flight, you’re in luck. In these situations, your airline can help with assistance including:

  • Meal vouchers for delays of four hours or more.
  • A hotel room for extended delays if seats on a subsequent flight aren’t available. Usually, this is for delays of more than eight hours on canceled flights.

Below, we’ll discuss some tips that we hope will help get you through this mess.

Surviving delayed or canceled flights. Great. You just found out that your flight has been delayed, making the chance of catching your connecting leg almost impossible. Or a storm back east caused your flight to be canceled. Rule #1: The clock is ticking, and you’re now in a race to outsmart everyone else on your original flight. Don’t just stand in line to wait to speak with a gate agent for your delayed or canceled flight. Everyone else will, so don’t be a sheep. It’s time to be creative, tough, and ruthless, not gruff and toothless.

One silver lining is that a growing number of airlines can often automatically rebook you on the next available flight and notify you on your airline’s mobile phone app, by text, or email to your phone. You can also log in to your frequent flyer account on the airline’s website to view the latest update that they may have made to your reservation.

If the airline does this for you, check the seat you have been assigned and strongly consider accepting this. It’s likely that a number of travelers are in the same situation as you, and being automatically placed on a new flight could free you from having to compete for a spot on another flight. But because there are no guarantees this might happen, here are some tips while waiting in line on how to minimize the stress of being stranded from a delayed or canceled flight:

  • Get on the phone and call your airline. Now. Be prepared with your flight information and frequent flyer number. With a little luck, you might get through to the airline agent faster than you will waiting to speak with the gate agent.
  • Long line? Seek out a gate agent with your airline at another gate. Any available gate agent can help you. Or, go to the airline’s customer service center on your airport concourse to seek their help. They can print out a new boarding pass for you on the spot, or you can either print one out at a nearby airline ticket kiosk or better yet, download the new boarding pass to your phone’s airline app.
  • Check to see if there are alternate flights at nearby gates either going to the same destination, or to a connecting airport that could get you where you need to go. (This is especially true at the large hub airports, offering more possible flights on your or alternate airlines.) Sprint there and request to be put on that flight. If the flight is full, ask to be placed on standby. If you can’t be placed on that alternate flight, you will be placed on the waiting list for the following departure.
  • If you belong to your airline’s premium lounge, this is where your membership can pay off. It’s often much faster, less crowded, and less stressful to work with the airline representative in the premium lounge. They’re often staffed by the airline’s most experienced agents, and we’ve found that we can often get better-quality help there. If you must, consider paying $50 for a day membership if it’s offered. The help, peace and quiet can be worth it, especially if the airport is a maelstrom of grumpy passengers.
  • Nobody likes going through TSA security an extra time. But if you can’t reach an airline gate agent for assistance, and the airline’s telephone hold times are backed up 12 years, you might consider exiting the secure area of the airport and going to the ticket counter at the front of the airport for help. We suggest this only if you know you will be stuck in the airport for a few hours. When you’re trying to get to your destination, thinking creatively counts. Even if it means going through security again.
  • While you’re waiting in line, use your phone and travel apps. Just because the airline’s phone or gate agent can look at their computer to help you get an alternate flight, don’t assume their suggestion is the best alternative. While you’re waiting to speak with an agent, use your phone to look up possible flights that you can suggest to the agent when it’s your turn. Your airline’s website, a website like FlightStats.com (or their mobile app), or other travel search apps like Kayak let you quickly find alternate flights. If necessary, you can book yourself on a new flight with your airline or another airline. If nothing else, when you finally speak with your airline’s representative, you can be armed with ideas on other flights that they could try to get you to your destination.
  • We’ll say it again: Travel agents are worth their weight in gold in times like these. If you use one, call yours. A good travel agent can often find and rebook you on an alternate flight in a few minutes.
  • Even if alternate flights are sold out, don’t give up. When the weather gets bad, there are so many flights canceled and delayed that lots of people are missing their connections, which can suddenly leave some available seats.
  • Think creatively. Another angle to play is to get rerouted to your destination through a third city, and give up trying to find an alternate direct flight. It’s a longer way home, but if bad weather or another problem is making it almost impossible to get to your destination directly, taking the long way home might be your best alternative. Or, if there is another airport in your departure city, see if there are available flights that could get you home.
  • If you’re flying from or within the European Union, you have additional rights in the case of delay or cancellation. These include a hotel, meals, and monetary compensation if the problem was within the “reasonable control” of the airline. We wish it were so for U.S. domestic air travelers.
  • There are times when your best efforts are doomed to fail. Winter storms are a perfect example. If you know that no flights are going to depart, book a hotel. Now. Before everyone else does. Use one of the hotel apps on your phone (you did install these, yes?) or a last-minute booking app like Hotel Tonight to find nearby hotels with open rooms. You can often get a great deal that you can book right from your phone.
  • If you checked your luggage, speak with an airline agent or call the airline to make sure your luggage gets routed to your destination. In some cases, when flights are canceled, the airline will return your luggage to baggage claim at your current airport, so be sure to double-check.

Discover more tips and advice to make your next flight healthier and headache-free in our new book, 300 Healthy Travel Tips. Happy holidays!