I’m writing this during the holiday season, where the stress-o-meter in the airports reaches its worst level. Peak crowds, packed planes, and overworked employees dealing with problems make for a rough combination. If there’s even the slightest weather or mechanical delay, the whole system can lock up like an engine without oil and it can literally take days for things to get back to normal.
Any flight on a U.S. legacy airline has the potential to be a nightmare on any occasion, however. So here’s my hard-won advice on how to get from point A to point B from a U.S. airport while keeping your sanity.
Book an Early Flight
No business traveler who needs to get to an important meeting ever takes an afternoon flight. Weather delays are more common as the day goes on and tend to pile up. When a flight gets delayed or cancelled, your list of options is much shorter than in the morning. Yes it sucks to get up when it’s still dark outside, but it beats getting stuck for half a day or more in an airport.
Get to the Airport Early
Once upon a time you could get to the airport just in time and still make your flight. Trying to do that now is like playing Russian Roulette. Every line and transit point can take much longer than planned and if you cut it any closer than two hours now, the stress level can quickly rise as you get backed up behind 200 people in the security line. (I have TSA pre-check too, by the way, but it’s not unusual to get to a line where that option doesn’t exist—including in some big transit airports like Houston.)
On Southwest you can board early and have a better shot at having room for your rollaboard if you pay a little extra or remember to check in close to 24 hours before. On the big three legacy airlines you can be one of the early boarders in one of two ways: get to elite status or get the right credit card. The latter is a smart move anyway because of the mileage amplification and other perks like a free checked bag. Get one or all of them.
Keep Essentials at Hand
You can lose a lot of things without your trip falling apart, but you have to make your ID/passport, wallet, and smartphone a priority. OK, maybe the kids if you have those. So no matter what distractions are going on and what the power-hungry TSA people are yelling at you, be sure you don’t lose track of what’s important. Then when you go to sit down on the plane, if it’s an international trip then have a pen. If your eyes aren’t good enough to read tiny print on customs forms, your glasses too!
Load Up on Apps and Contacts
Most delay problems you run into can be solved faster with a phone call or app than by getting in line to speak to an airline representative dealing with a whole planeload of problems. Skyscanner, Kayak, and the airline apps are a good start and don’t forget about Twitter! I once got rerouted by @DeltaAssist within five minutes after they cancelled a flight I was heading to the airport to board.
Hotel booking apps can also be handy if weather delays cause a lot of people to start looking for hotels at the same time. If you have elite status with a particular hotel chain, TripIt Pro can store all your loyalty numbers. HotelTonight is especially good for immediate bookings.
Carry a Charger
If you take a six-hour flight and then need to race to get on another flight at a different gate, those charger stations at the gate won’t do you much good. Plus many older planes don’t have a USB plug. Carry your own portable charger for an extra boost.
Insure Your Trip
When many people hear “travel insurance” they think of what happens when they have medical problems. You can insure the more frequent issues though, such as flight delays, cancellations, lost bags, or similar frustrations. Our partner Allianz Global Assistance even offers several annual plans for frequent travelers and some elite credit cards have some basic remittance policies you can claim if you purchased with their card. Read the fine print and see.
Don’t Cut Anything Too Close
If you assume things are going to go wrong or get delayed and build in cushions accordingly, you’re much more likely to stroll along whistling a happy tune while people are running and cursing around you. People who travel without stress don’t book one-hour layovers, don’t book car services at a time that assumes no traffic delays, and don’t book a meeting or activity that assumes their flight will arrive on time. Optimism is a noble trait that makes for a happy life, but a healthy heaping of pessimism will serve you much better on U.S. air travel days.
For more tips, see a previous post by Sheila on how to travel like a pro. My favorite: “Assume starvation and be pleasantly surprised when you actually have time to find and eat an airport meal.”