It’s called the “most wonderful time of the year.” Though for many families traveling during the holidays, it’s more like a Halloween nightmare. Crowded airports, anxious passengers, winter weather delays, lost luggage, crying kids and oversold flights all add to the chaos.
Fox News Traveler put together a holiday airport travel survival guide to help you navigate everything from making sure your family is seated together to entertaining younger seat mates onboard. Below are some of the worst predicaments to find you and your family in while traveling over the holidays and how to avoid or get out of them.
1. Long Lines
We’re not going to lie. Even if you arrive hours early, you’re still likely to get stuck in a line at some point on the peak holiday travel days - whether while waiting to check in or pass through security.
Always err on the side of caution - especially for those traveling through the nation's busiest airports - when deciding how early to be at the airport. Travel expert for Brian Ek, senior travel analyst for Priceline.com, encourages fliers to arrive two hours early for domestic and three hours for international itineraries.
“You might shave that a bit if you're flight is early morning or late night,” Ek said. “If your flight is in normal business hours, when airports are more crowded, then you should add another 30 to 45 minutes... Get thru security and relax. Who needs the stress?”
If you’ve checked in at home and don’t need to speak to an agent, curbside checking may save you time. Don’t forget to bring cash. It may never be more worth the couple extra bucks per bag than the night before Thanksgiving or the weekend after Christmas.
2. Scattered Seats
It’s possible you may not have been able to reserve seats together for your family no matter how early you booked your Christmas plane tickets. If you find yourself in this unlucky predicament, there are several steps you can take.
First, call the airlines now - as in today. The senior product manager for SeatGuru.com, Ranga Natarajan, says a representative over the phone might be able to help with seat assignments if the flight isn’t full. Next, if that doesn't work, check in as early as possible for your flight online to see if there are seats you can select next to each other. For most airlines, that is about 24-hours in advance. Finally, if you’re still in trouble, get to the gate early.
“Gate agents are great and they wield a good amount of power and so if you ask (and) request it nicely, you will be heard,” Natarajan said. “It is always good to smile and be free with the compliments, this will help you out better than being surly. Having your kid accompany you and pull on their heart strings works most of the time too.”
And the last option - rely on the Christmas spirit. Hopefully someone will feel compelled to switch with you onboard so your child isn’t sitting alone.
3. Delayed and Desperately Bored
It can be a brutal combination. An iPad or laptop preloaded with movies or games is no good without battery life. Many electronic devices won’t have enough juice to entertain the kids during a couple hour or more delay as well as the flight. Bottom line: don’t check critical cords.
“The solution is to always pack chargers in your carry-on and invest in powerful back up batteries,” said Jamie Pearson of TravelSavvyMom.com. “Also, download two to three times as many television episodes and movies as you think you'll need. Better to have and not need than need and not have!”
4. Lost Luggage
As if it’s not bad enough to miss a connection or have a flight cancelled, who knows where your bag full of presents and your checked car seat might end up on a disastrous travel day. Don’t pack essentials or must haves - like your child’s favorite gift - for the holiday trip in your checked suitcase. Think through what is most important to have with you when you land at your destination and put those items in your carry-on first.
Speaking of what is likely your most precious cargo - presents - do not bother to wrap them before going to the airport. Wrapped gifts are not prohibited by TSA, but agents may need to unwrap them to take a closer look during security screening. Save yourself the trouble and stress: pack gift bags and tissue paper instead. Or better yet - ship them.
“Find out the bag restrictions for your airline and pay attention to weight, size and number of bags,” Ek said. “Don't get caught by bag fees. Send packages on ahead - UPS is way cheaper than paying a bag fee for a package.”
5. Winter Bugs
Coughs, sneezes, runny noses - they’re about as common at airports during the holiday travel season as over-priced, crummy pizza. Consider packing tissues, anti-bacterial hand sanitizer and medications, such as Tylenol. Even with those precautions, catching a bug is sometimes inevitable.
“My whole family got hit with a very violent 24-hour flu at the same time,” said Brittany Nielsen from Granite Bay, California. “It was one of those things where you feel fine one second and are very not fine the next second. Unfortunately for us, the crew, and everyone on the plane, we were in the air going from Denver back home when it hit.”
6. Put Hunger on a Hiatus This Holiday Season
Don’t let being hungry become a game of finding food at the airport. It may seem like a great idea to avoid packing one more thing by planning on buying dinner in the terminal. However, family travel experts say this is often where parents are ill-prepared - causing not only a stomach-ache, but probably a headache too. Pearson says it’s nearly impossible to know whether you’ll have time to pick up a meal before rushing to the gate and whether there will be anything your kids will actually eat.
“Our family has two vegetarians, one picky eater, and one person who gets hives thinking about airport food prices,” Pearson said. “As big of a pain as it is, always pack your own food for flights. Once, due to a late arrival, we had a tight connection in Dallas and had to eat Tic Tacs for dinner. Never again!”
While the snow is falling outside, the kids could likely be melting down inside - especially when weather delays or missed connections strike. After bringing what you thought was countless hours of entertainment and endless amounts of snacks, sometimes there’s not much else you can do. Take a deep breath. Then, try to divert your and their attention from the stressful situation.
“There are so many new sights and sounds to engage the kids and take their minds off of whatever is causing the meltdown at the time,” said family travel expert Erin Gifford of kidventurous.com. “Look out the windows at the airplanes coming in and taking off. Get an ice cream. Just don't let the child take control of the situation. Spend one-on-one time together for a few minutes.”
We all know in the end - you can never be too ready for what might happen during holiday travels. A good attitude is likely what will get you through.
“Don't forget to pack your sense of humor and bring lots of patience,” Ek said. “It's supposed to be a fun holiday.”