Navigating common hassles during busy holiday travel periods requires forethought—and patience. Transportation industry expert William McGee offers his best, hard-won tips for beating travel misery.
Last year was arguably the worst holiday travel season we’ve ever seen.
The Southwest Airlines operational meltdown lasted 11 days encompassing Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s. It canceled 17,000 flights and stranded more than 2 million passengers, as I detailed when calling for industry reforms.
It was the worst single-carrier disruption ever, and on Monday, the Department of Transportation (DOT) levied a record fine against Southwest. Other domestic airlines also performed poorly that week, although their problems paled. Which raises the crucial question: What will holiday travel be like this year?
There’s cause for optimism: Thanksgiving 2023 went remarkably well. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened a record 2.9 million travelers the Sunday after the holiday, yet the DOT reported flight cancellations remained under 1%.
However, it will be quite the busy season. AAA forecasts near-record holiday travelers in 2023, some 115.2 million between December 23 and January 1, which is 2.5 million more than 2022.
While most vacationers will be flying or driving, even other forms of transportation—buses, trains, cruise ships—will be more crowded.
Meanwhile, there are still air traffic controller shortages, and the X factor of bad weather, which is always frequent in December and January.
Here’s a breakdown of what to remember as you travel this holiday season.
Bank of America Global Research notes “strong holiday demand” and AAA confirms it, with 7.5 million flyers expected.
• The time you fly matters. DOT stats show that the first flights of the day have the fewest delays and cancellations.
• If possible, choose nonstops over connections, thereby halving your chances of disruptions.
• Ensure plenty of connecting time if nonstops aren’t feasible.
• The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Holiday Travel page shows Christmas Day has the lightest loads.
• I know you know, but arrive at the airport early! Download the TSA’s free app for airport security wait times.
Baggage: Flight disruptions also affect the bags you check. (Southwest is the only airline in the country not charging for first—and second—checked bags.) One way to avoid the twin hassles of mishandled checked baggage and fighting for carry-on bin space is to send your bags ahead. Unfortunately, Greyhound Package Express shut down, but there’s still USPS, Fedex, and UPS. There’s also no shortage of luggage shipping companies, but make sure to compare prices and delivery times.
Crisis control: If you’re faced with the Dreaded Trio—delays, cancellations, bumpings—you may have options. The DOT’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard allows you to see what your carrier is committed to providing. Then look up the Contract of Carriage’s fine print on your airline’s website. Frequent flyer status may help with accommodations and compensation. If you decide to cancel, DOT regulations mandate cash refunds, so don’t accept vouchers or credits.
As for airfares? The best prices are often found at least 90 days in advance (six months for international). So obviously that flight has sailed for this year. But keep it in mind for 2024!
The Federal Trade Commission wants to ban junk fees, especially at hotels and resorts. Even some within the lodging industry are calling for such a ban. But for now it remains caveat emptor on “resort fees,” parking, WiFi, breakfast, room service delivery, “activity fees,” etc.
Loyalty: Members of hotel loyalty programs can offset some fees, and membership can help if the property is overbooked and they attempt to “walk” you to another hotel. Don’t be passive: Sign up for alerts and stay in touch if your plans change or you’re delayed.
Booking: How you reserve plays a part too. Using third-party sites to comparison shop alerts you to bargains. But while reserving directly through a hotel may be cheaper, booking through a travel advisor can provide your own troubleshooter when things go wrong.
The roads will be crowded, with AAA noting 90% of holiday travel of 50 miles or more is by car, much of it in rentals. So it’s helpful to know the lightest traffic days are the actual holidays—Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. But check border crossing wait times for Canada and Mexico. AAA also estimates gas prices will remain roughly the same as in 2022, averaging $3.10–$3.20 per gallon.
Unexpected fees: Rental firms also have gone fee-happy, so beware your travel budget. It’s imperative to decide in advance what extras you need, because holding a crying toddler at an airport counter at midnight isn’t the time to decipher collision damage waiver policies. Some rental fees are outrageous, such as roadside service to fix their car. Or second driver costs. Or the often bogus “cleaning fees.” Beware them all, and it helps to take before and after photos of the vehicle, both inside and outside.
Tolls: Understand the toll pass options, a scam Jason Cochran detailed here on Frommer’s last year.
Families: Every expert agrees the safest way for kids under 2 to fly is an approved restraint, so bring your own car seat. But if booking through a rental firm, be aware they often don’t guarantee availability. So check again prior to pick-up. Be a nudge!
General travel tips
• Don’t pack wrapped gifts or certain home-cooked delicacies in your carry-ons, because the TSA may be unwrapping and/or disposing of them.
• Travel insurance can make sense based on your itinerary and cost, but buy it independently. If the travel agency, tour operator, or airline goes bankrupt, your policy may be voided.
• If things go wrong, document it! That means dates, times, locations, names, flight numbers, confirmation numbers. DOT details how to complain about airlines and USA.gov offers advice on all other travel.
• Stay cool this winter! Be calm and collected, despite what travel employees, fellow travelers, or the weather throws at you. They may fray your nerves, but the wrong response can ruin your holiday.
William J. McGee is the Senior Fellow for Aviation & Travel at American Economic Liberties Project. An FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher, he spent seven years in airline flight operations management and was Editor-in-Chief of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. He is the author of Attention All Passengers and teaches at Vaughn College of Aeronautics. There is more at www.economicliberties.us/william-mcgee/.