9 travel hacks for the holiday season to avoid headaches

Here are some handy tips for traveling during the most hectic time of the year.

CNET staff
4 min read
Francesco Carta/Getty

Holiday travel season is in full swing and won't let up till after the new year. Travel is returning to pre-COVID numbers, and holiday passengers are likely to face more flight cancellations, skyrocketing prices and packed planes. Here are some hacks to help you and your family stay safe, sane and on track this holiday travel season. 

1. Book soon

After dramatically reduced holiday traveling in 2020, airlines are expected to see the highest single year increase in holiday travelers since 2005. Fares are up and it may be tough to get the flights you want, so if you see something, pounce on it -- and be prepared for it to cost more.

2. Plan ahead

Download the app of the airline you're using to fly so you can get the latest information and notifications. You can also use the app to change flights -- a move that will save you a lot of time -- especially since airline reservation phone lines are experiencing record hold times. Plus, some airlines, like American, are offering financial incentives to customers if the company overbooks a flight and needs people to switch to another flight.

FlightAware is another useful app that lets you track flights online, view a live map of a flight and check on delays, cancellations and gate changes. It's especially helpful if you have a tight connection.

3. Review vaccine and testing requirements

This is extremely important if you're going abroad for the holidays. Each country has its own requirements, so check the appropriate embassy website for the most up-to-date information before you travel internationally. And remember -- you will need to get a COVID-19 viral test, whether vaccinated or not, before you fly back to the US. You must show your negative result to the airline upon boarding your flight. If you test positive, you won't be allowed to board the aircraft and will have to self-isolate until you recover. 

4. Avoid bottleneck days

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving weekend and the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving are generally busy travel days. The days around Christmas, from Dec. 23 to 26, are also crowded. It's possible that for people working remotely, travel dates could be more flexible -- so the Christmas rush may be a bit more spread out than usual.    

5. Choose your destination wisely

If you're vacationing rather than visiting family, being flexible with your destination choices can offer great returns. Booking a trip to a less popular location -- such as international destinations or places that require COVID testing/vaccination for entry -- can reduce the holiday hustle, often with the added benefit of a better deal. Remember, booking a trip to a tropical location in the off-season can make prices more reasonable.

6. Fly direct when possible

Air traffic is expected to be heavy, so direct flights can offer you peace of mind. AAA reports that 53.4 million Americans will take to the skies this Thanksgiving alone, a number close to pre-pandemic travel statistics. If you have to connect at a hub airport -- especially Chicago O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth or Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson -- and you end up missing your flight, it could take a while to find a new flight. If you don't make your connecting flight and need to book a new one, it could also require shelling out extra cash.

7. Avoid budget airlines 

While low-cost airlines can offer great deals, if something does go wrong, you could be stuck at the airport for a long time. Budget airlines have smaller fleets and no reciprocal agreements with other carriers, so one flight cancellation or delay can wreak havoc on your trip. If you must book on a budget, get a direct flight first thing in the morning -- those are much less likely to be canceled.

8. Book your car rentals early

If you haven't booked your rental car by now, it's probably too late. Even if you're able to find a vehicle, it's going to be expensive since rental car companies sold off large parts of their fleets during the pandemic and are struggling to recover inventory. For context, a Chevrolet Spark compact car is running at a whopping $103 in some locations during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. Consider the peer-to-peer car-sharing service Turo or the door-to-door, app-based car rental delivery company Kyte as alternatives.

9. Consider buying airline lounge access

If you have a layover and your credit card doesn't offer lounge access, consider buying a day pass for one. Sometimes you can pick up a day pass on a site like Groupon for a discount, or you can purchase one at the door. Restaurants at airports will be understaffed and gate areas will be crowded during this chaotic travel season, so spending the money for a comfortable place to wait could be worth it.