Back in October or November, when you booked your airline ticket for the holidays, you may have had visions of sugarplum fairies dancing in your head — or maybe it was just a vision of being with family or friends — but as seasoned travelers will attest, buying the ticket is only the first step to a successful trip. Between now and the moment the wheels leave the runway, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of a joyous holiday flight.
- Pack intelligently. This starts with knowing the TSA screening process at the airport, which requires removing the laptop computer and zip-top bag of liquids and gels from your carry-on bag at the screening checkpoint. You should also pack essential items (keys, prescription medication, and irreplaceable items) in your carry-on bag, in case your checked luggage doesn’t make it to your destination at the same time you do. Tactical Tip: Pack for the screening process by leaving room in an easily-accessible compartment for your laptop and liquids. This will save precious time in the screening line, and will earn favor with fellow travelers in line behind you. Bonus Tip: If you’re tight on space in that liquids/gels bag, make sure it’s a true 1-quart sized zip-top bag, and not a sandwich sized baggie — it makes a world of difference.
- Don’t pre-wrap gifts. A common misconception is that one way to simplify your holiday travel is to wrap all those presents for nieces and nephews ahead of time. Unfortunately, this just means TSA crew members have to unwrap presents they don’t even get to keep. Tactical Tip: Pack a small roll of wrapping paper and scotch tape in your bag. However, unless you’re checking that bag, plan to buy or borrow scissors when you reach your destination.
- Do your own flight check. There’s nothing like arriving at the airport with plenty of time to spare, only to find out your flight has been cancelled. You can easily avoid this pitfall by checking your flight status before you leave for the airport. However, if your flight has a delayed status, those delays can sometimes be fixed and you’ll want to be at your gate in time to board the flight. Tactical Tip: Checking your flight status directly with your airline will give you the most up-to-date information. And, considering how many people are flying near the holidays, you’ll likely save yourself time and frustration checking your flight status online with your airline, as opposed to calling the 800 number.
- Leave a little extra time on the clock. What we mean is, don’t wait until the last possible minute to leave for the airport. While you don’t want to get there five hours early, you also want to have plenty of time to park, check in, check your bags if necessary, and get through security and to your gate. Tactical Tip: Give yourself the gift of an extra thirty minutes — even an hour — when you plan what time you’ll leave for the airport. You’ll experience reduced stress levels, which means you’ll be better equipped to cope with any hiccups you might experience with traffic or other issues. Plus, you’ll have some quiet time to yourself once you’re at your gate — time you could use to plan your goals for next year, enjoy a cup of coffee, or catch up on e-mail.
- Prepare your documents. Have your boarding pass and ID (driver’s license or passport) ready before you enter the TSA screening checkpoint. TSA will always ask to see these documents, and you can speed your check in process by having them out before they ask. Tactical Tip: Keep these items in the most accessible pocket of your carry-on, and tuck them right back into it after you receive them back from TSA to ensure they don’t get lost.
- Know your zone. Most airlines board flights by calling zone or row numbers. Take a moment to study your boarding pass and know your zone. Then, wait for your zone to be called to board the flight. Tactical Tip: A lot of research has gone into determining the fastest way to fill a plane with passengers, so even though you’re itching to get on board as soon as possible so that flight can get off the ground, waiting for your section to be called is actually more efficient than rushing to sneak on with another zone.
- Know your resources. As 16th Century poet Miguel de Cervantes put it, “The man who is prepared has his battle half fought.” And while we like to think travel isn’t quite like a battle, there are ways in which you can prepare yourself for victory over potential challenges, including making a list of resources you might need. Tactical Tip: Make a “cheat sheet” with phone numbers and website addresses for your airline, flight-tracking tools, ground transportation options, and the times and flight numbers of flights that are scheduled after yours (in case you need to find yourself a seat on another flight). In fact, you can find a lot of this information on our website. If you’re a Twitter user, follow your airline and airport — some airlines are able to respond to requests for help more quickly via Twitter than phone.