8 Travel Tips to Outsmart the Holiday Crowds

In November and December, travelers compete for space on the roads and seats on planes. Get ahead of the crowds with these helpful pointers from the experts.

Mom and Son Looking Out Airport Terminal Window

by NEA Member Benefits

Holiday travel is the price we pay for holiday togetherness. Highways and airports start bustling come Thanksgiving and don’t seem to let up much until the New Year, but take heart. These tips from those in the know help make getting there and back much easier—which should, in turn, help make holiday trips much more festive.

1. Travel at non-peak times

Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all fall on Thursdays this holiday season, so the biggest air travel days for all three will be Wednesday and Sunday, says Melisse Hinkle, travel expert at Cheapflights.com.

She recommends avoiding those days and flying on the actual holiday if possible. “It’ll be a more affordable and less crowded experience, and you may even get a free celebratory drink from the airline,” Hinkle says.

One notable exception: American roadways are often at peak busyness on Thanksgiving Day, so it’s best to eat and nap that day instead of driving.

2. Use your travel apps

Take advantage of modern technology to keep tabs on flight and road conditions. A few useful ones to try:

  • FlightStats gives you real-time updates on flight departures, delays and more.
  • GateGuru offers lots of helpful info including flight delays, gate changes and security wait times.
  • Waze users help fellow drivers with real-time traffic and road updates.

3. Send gifts ahead

Buying gifts online and having them delivered to your destination saves packing time and lightens your load. Sending them yourself also may be a good bet, especially if you’ll be charged for checking them as baggage.

If you do bring gifts to the airport in your luggage or carry-on, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends not wrapping them for faster security screening. Or consider gift cards, which always travel well.

4. Bring food

Airport food courts are pricey and crowded. Ditto for restaurants on the road, which also add trip time. “You never know when a surprise detour will leave you stuck on the highway with no exit in sight,” adds Stephanie Oswald, editor in chief and cofounder of Travelgirl Magazine.

  • Snacks to pack: Protein or granola bars, apples or cheese crackers. Let each family member make their own trail mix from ingredients such as almonds, cashews, pistachios, raisins, dried cranberries or other fruit, goldfish crackers, dried cereal, mini pretzels, M&Ms and chocolate chips. (Winter holiday bonus: Chocolate won’t melt in the car the way it does in the summer!)
  • A slice of home: Oswald’s favorite go-to travel food for road trips is pizza. She bakes it and wraps individual pieces in aluminum foil the night before heading out. As long as you don’t mind eating it cold, pizza will stay fresh in a cooler. Or you can heat it in your hotel microwave that evening.

5. Avoid airport lines

Always check in online, Cheapflights.com’s Hinkle says. Most airlines allow you to do it 24 hours in advance and then accept baggage check-ins curbside or at a self-service kiosk or special counter. Also consider registering for TSA PreCheck, a program that grants low-risk travelers expedited checkpoint screening. (The application costs $85, and the approval process takes about 2 to 3 weeks.) If you’re approved, your Known Traveler Number is valid for 5 years.

6. Stock the car

Besides food and your favorite tunes, also pack cash for emergencies, change for speedy travel through tollways and physical maps for quick detour navigation (and to have on hand in case of digital navigation problems). A roadside emergency kit is always a good idea too.

7. Register as a frequent flyer (even if you’re not)

Most airlines overbook seats to factor in no-shows, says travel expert John “Johnny Jet” DiScala. But when voucher offers don’t sway all the travelers intently focused on getting to Grandma’s in time, agents start bumping passengers. “They usually start with those without elite status or those who checked in last, so join the airline’s frequent-flier club and check in as far in advance as possible,” he advises.

8. Leave early

Whether traveling by road or air, plan to leave earlier than you normally would. Add even more time if you’re traveling during peak traffic or airport hours or if weather conditions are bad, as they often are for year-end holidays. Padding your schedule will better help you deal with crowds, delays, reroutes and other potential stressors without letting them sap your holiday spirit.


 One more way to make holiday travel better is to take advantage of discounts and special offers that airlines and car rental companies provide exclusively to NEA members.

We can help you save on your next trip