How to Survive the Busiest Holiday Travel Season Ever

Storms are expected in large swaths of the country just in time for Thanksgiving. Here’s what travelers can expect and a step-by-step guide for what to do should your flight plans start to falter.

Passengers with their luggage at the self-check-in kiosk for United at Los Angeles International Airport

You can improve your chances of success (and reduce your potential stress) by taking some key steps right before and right after you get to the airport.

Photo by Shutterstock

This past Friday, November 17, marked the official start of the Thanksgiving travel period, a 12-day stretch during which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) anticipates that it will screen a record 30 million passengers this year. And unfortunately, the period that typically sees the busiest travel days of the year comes just as a major storm is gaining momentum across much of the eastern half of the United States.

But according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and newly appointed FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker, the traveling public shouldn’t anticipate delays and cancellations on the level that we saw during the holiday season last year.

“Winter weather may challenge airlines in the next few weeks,” Secretary Buttigieg said during a joint media briefing about holiday travel on Monday. But, he added, “while we can’t control the weather, we will be using every tool at our disposal to keep cancellations and delays as low as possible.”

The Transportation Secretary reminded travelers to file a complaint with the DOT in the event that they are having trouble getting a refund or proper compensation for a delayed or canceled flight. “If an airline lets its passengers down, we are here to hold that airline accountable,” he said.

Buttigieg said that the DOT will also be working to ensure that when weather or traffic causes a disruption, commercial flights that were already scheduled to take off first will not get bumped back by private flights. “You won’t have to wait on someone who just hopped on a private jet for a golf trip cutting in line ahead of your passenger aircraft. Your flight to go see your family will be the priority,” he said.

For its part, the TSA, which issued a release on how it is preparing for what it expects will be the busiest holiday season ever, said its goal is to keep TSA standard security screening line wait times to under 30 minutes and TSA PreCheck lanes to under 10 minutes.

AAA is projecting that 55.4 million American will travel at least 50 miles or more between November 22 (the Wednesday before Thanksgiving) and Sunday, November 26, the third-highest Thanksgiving travel forecast since AAA began tracking holiday travel in 2000 (the top two years were 2005 followed by 2019).

And after a brief lull for a few weeks, we will launch right into the peak holiday travel periods that surround Christmas and New Year from mid-December through early January, a timeframe that last year was defined by cataclysmic weather across the country and an epic meltdown at Southwest Airlines.

“Last year was shambolic. Nearly 5.5 percent of nationwide flights in December [2022] got canceled, including multiple days around Christmas when two-thirds of Southwest flights were axed. And that was following significant disruptions in the summer when many travelers took their first trip since the pandemic began,” Scott Keyes, founder of travel deal tracking service, said in an email.

In order to get a sense of how things have improved, Going compared flight cancellation rates from January through August for this year, last year, and the prepandemic year of 2019. Here’s how they stack up:

  • 2019: 2.3 percent
  • 2022: 3.0 percent
  • 2023: 1.7 percent

While this year has clearly marked a big improvement, weather is always the wild card.

“Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are two of the busiest travel times of the year, which, to all our misfortune, arrive right when the weather turns sour in much of the country. Mother Nature will cause some number of cancellations, guaranteed,” wrote Keyes. But, he added, “will we see another widespread meltdown like we saw last year? I’m optimistic we won’t.”

According to Keyes, the fact that airlines have more pilots, planes, and staff this year than last will definitely help.

“Still, past performance is no guarantee of future results. I certainly wouldn’t bet my savings on airlines avoiding widespread disruptions, especially considering meltdowns are unpredictable black swan events,” stated Keyes.

Here’s how to ensure smooth sailing this holiday travel season and what to do as soon as your flight gets disrupted.

What to do before you go

Three American Airlines planes parked at airport gates with light snow on the ground and gray skies

It’s beginning to look a lot like the holiday travel season, everywhere you go.

Courtesy of Brandon Day/Unsplash

Step 1: Start checking the weather up to a week before your flight(s)

“Weather is the big factor,” says Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot and spokesperson for flight tracking service FlightAware. “So, know in advance the forecast for your departure and destination and also take into consideration the weather at the main hubs for your airline. Meaning, if you fly Delta and Atlanta has bad weather, that could affect your flight even if you’re flying out of Denver. I know the weather well enough to brief the pilots on the weather.”

What kind of inclement weather should travelers be on the lookout for that could result in major delays or cancellations? When there are weather conditions that hamper visibility, including rain, blowing snow, falling snow, and anytime the winds start blowing upwards of 20 miles per hour, air travel can start to get bogged down by delays. And when there are strong crosswinds “some runways will be less usable, and if the visibility diminishes, then aircraft have to land via instrument approaches, which take more time and slow things down,” says Bangs.

She recommends using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Forecast Chart, which is a great tool for seeing all of the major weather systems and fronts across the United States, with one-day, two-day, and three-day forecasts. “It’s uncannily accurate,” she says.

If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming a meteorologist, now’s your chance. You can also check the weather radar and forecasts available on sites and apps such as the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather.

This is important because travelers shouldn’t wait for the airlines to let them know that their flight is being significantly delayed or canceled. Bangs says that airlines will often wait until the last minute to let travelers know their flight has been disrupted. So, if you see a system that is undoubtedly going to cause problems, this is your opportunity to get ahead of the issue by rebooking your flight before or after an incoming storm.

Step 2: If you used a travel agent, check in with them to discuss possible alternatives

If you’re heading out on a domestic or international trip that looks like it might get disrupted and you used a travel agent, this is the time to check in with them and go over some possible alternatives and workarounds. This person should also be used as a valuable ally should travel plans go awry mid-journey. Lean on them to help rebook travel as needed.

Step 3: Check the airport website for construction-related delays

The country’s airports are in the midst of a huge renaissance, which is great for future travel, but not so great for the here and now. Many of them, like New York’s JFK, are undergoing massive construction and renovation projects that can cause delays in getting to and through the airport. If there are construction projects underway at your departure hub, some airport road lanes and/or parking areas could be closed, causing backlogs and some parking areas to fill up to capacity. It’s best to know what plans are in the works at the airport so you can plan accordingly. (Ditto any possible delays on the highways getting to the airport.)

Step 4: Create a backup plan—and possibly book a backup flight—before heading out

Rather that just hope for the best, travelers should establish some parameters around flight disruptions. “If the flight gets delayed, how long of a delay will I accept before altering my itinerary? If my flight gets canceled, am I depending on the original carrier to get me to destination or do I have a backup ticket on another carrier for later in the day?” says Bangs.

The former pilot will often go ahead and proactively book a backup flight with a second airline as long as it doesn’t have a change fee and has a generous cancellation policy—such as with Southwest Airlines, which allows for cancellations up to 10 minutes before departure time. If you don’t end up using the backup, you can bank the flight credit for future travel.

Step 5: If you have TSA PreCheck, make sure you’ve added it to your reservation

It’s too late to sign up for TSA’s trusted traveler program in time for the holidays (these busy travel periods often remind us just how priceless the five-year, $78 membership is). But for those who are already enrolled, TSA reminds travelers to make sure that their Known Traveler Number (KTN), confirming their TSA PreCheck membership, along with the correct date of birth, is on their airline reservation. And if you don’t have it, maybe gift yourself a membership for future flights.

Step 6: Check to see if your airport has a fast-pass security you can book in advance—for free

For those who missed the boat on getting TSA PreCheck in time for the holidays, there’s one more somewhat lesser-known option for bypassing lengthy security lines. Select airports in North America (as well as some airports in Europe, too) are giving travelers the option to make an advance “fast pass” reservation to head to the front of the security line—free of charge. We’ve compiled the full list of airports that offer this service.

Step 7: Pack smart

This means starting with empty bags, according to TSA. “Passengers who start with an empty bag while packing are less likely to bring prohibited items through the checkpoint,” the agency advised in a recent release about how to prepare for holiday travel. TSA reminds travelers that containers that are larger than 3.4 ounces and contain certain foods that would be considered liquids or gels, such as gravy, cranberry sauce, wine, jam, and preserves, need to be checked. “If you can spill it, spray it, spread it, pump it, or pour it, then it is a liquid and must be packed in your checked bag,” TSA stated. Solid foods such as cakes and other baked goods can be brought through TSA checkpoints.

Also remember to pack a day or two of essentials in your personal item, not just in your carry-on bag. With airplanes flying full over the holidays, there’s always a chance that you could get separated from your carry-on should the airline start gate checking bags.

Step 8: Get to the airport (extra) early

The country’s airports will be busy this holiday season, so TSA advises arriving at least two hours prior to your scheduled departure so that you have time to park your car (if you’re driving), check bags, and get through security screening lines that are likely to be longer than usual.

What to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

Even if you did everything you were supposed to do leading up to getting to the airport, you got there early and got through security with plenty of time to spare, things could still go wrong. If, despite all your best efforts, it appears you are going to fall victim to significant delays or, worse, a flight cancellation, here’s your step-by-step guide for what to do next.

Step 1: Know your rebooking and compensation rights

Airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled due to problems deemed beyond the company’s control, like bad weather. They also aren’t required to provide a refund when the passenger initiates the cancellation or flight change.

However, it’s a different story when the cancellation originates from the airline. A refund is required by U.S. law when the airline cancels, delays, or alters a flight or passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold or due to issues originating from the airline, such as operational or staffing problems. It’s important to be armed with this information before you get a hold of a customer service representative or gate agent, because knowledge is power.

Additionally, all of the major U.S. airlines have vowed to provide meal vouchers for delays of more than three hours and to provide transfers and hotel stays to passengers affected by an overnight cancellation. They have all also agreed to rebook travelers on an alternate flight at no added cost due to a delay or cancellation and most will also rebook on a partner airline. You can access all of this information on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection site (which includes a table of compensations broken down by airline).

Make sure you are getting all that you are due. And file a complaint with the DOT if you don’t.

Step 2: Browse your flight options

Before you hop into a line or onto the phone to talk to a gate agent or customer service representative, take a few minutes to look up possible alternative flights—use a travel search tool like Google Flights to see all the options at your disposal. (But remember that Southwest doesn’t display on Google Flights, so search for Southwest flights separately if you want to see what the airline is offering in addition to other carriers.) The flights can be with the same airline you are booked on, but can also be with partner airlines and even with competing carriers. If you know of a specific flight that has empty seats, it can be helpful to bring that knowledge into your conversation. In some situations, even competing airlines will allow you to transfer over a ticket.

Step 3: Jump into line and onto the phone at the same time to get rebooked

If you want to continue with your travel plans, you will need to get rebooked on a different flight (unless your flight is delayed, not canceled, and you have decided to stick with it). In this case, you should take a multi-pronged approached. Jump into a customer service line at the airport and get on the phone at the same time. Maybe even phone a friend or family member who can call the airline while you start working away via the airline’s app.

If you have downloaded your airline’s app and have your flight information linked to your account, you may not need to deal with an actual human in the event of a flight delay or cancellation. As soon as your airline knows your flight will be delayed or canceled, it will send you an update within its dedicated app. Whether it’s delayed or canceled, it should give you the option to rebook on a different flight directly within the app (if it hasn’t automatically placed you on a different flight). In this case, it pays to act quickly—after all, there’s a whole plane full of travelers in the same situation.

If things aren’t working out online or on the phone, you’re already in line to speak to an agent who can hopefully offer some assistance.

Step 4: Try to remain calm and friendly

First of all, this is a collective reminder that it’s the holidays and that everyone who is working to get you to your destination is working during the holidays. Add to that the fact that when delays and cancellations pile up, the number of frustrated fliers starts to mount. Good old-fashioned kindness and empathy can help make headway with a weary gate, airline, or customer service agent who isn’t having an easy day. If you’re on the phone with an agent who just does not seem like they want to help, don’t hesitate to make an excuse for ending the call and try back for another person who maybe is more willing. Yes, we know that could mean another prolonged period of sitting through lounge music while on hold.

Step 5: If the airline isn’t helping, consider rebooking yourself

According to Bangs, a big mistake a lot of travelers make is waiting for the airline to assist them in some way because they’re worried about losing their money. In a particularly tricky travel situation, she’ll worry about getting compensation and reimbursement later and just make the bookings that get her moving again, including by looking into nearby airports to expand options. This does, of course, come with some risks in terms of ultimately getting the recompense you were hoping for. But with airlines’ more lenient change policies since the pandemic and the DOT working harder to advocate on passengers’ behalf, if you absolutely don’t want to miss time with your family, it might be a risk worth taking.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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