This is the busiest travel time of year, when even veteran road warriors get stressed out by flight delays, missing baggage and hotel and car rental snafus.
These holiday travel tips from long-time road warrior ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter will help you stay sane year-round.
We’re called road warriors because we wage a never-ending battle against anarchy in distant area codes. Instead of Humvees and camouflage, our weapons are mobile devices and Wi-Fi, Tylenol and Rolaids, carry-ons with wheels, and a large glass of pinot noir.
Here are my airport and airplane road warrior guerrilla tactics learned the hard way over decades of making – and missing – flights:
Take the First Flight of the Day
Book the earliest possible flight of the day.
Early flights generally leave on time. The later you leave, the more chance you are subject to delays and perhaps missed connections.
Never Take the Last Flight of the Day
Never, ever, take the last flight or last connection unless you like sleeping on the airport floor. Find out the last way to your destination, and book the flight or flights just before that.
Airlines try not to cancel the last two flights, unless everything east of the Mississippi is getting buried under a foot of snow, and then you can’t get anywhere no matter what flight you booked.
Avoid Bad Connections
Fly non-stop whenever possible.
Since many destinations require a connection, choose the connecting city carefully, which may even determine which airline you fly.
Changing planes in Chicago, Minneapolis or Detroit in winter is subject to snow delays, just as changing planes in Dallas or Miami in summer is subject to hurricane delays.
The most sensible tactic is to connect up north in summer and down south in winter.
- Track the weather in you destination. If bad weather is expected, your airline may let you leave a day earlier without a flight change fee.
Learn the Secret Language Airlines Use
There are two phrases you should know and use when making or changing an airline reservation with a live person. These two phrases tell the customer service agent that you are an experienced traveler, even a road warrior, rather than the occasional traveler, and should be treated like a loyal customer.
- When you can’t decide which flight to book, load factor gives you wiggle space. If you ask, “how many seats are left?”, the likely response will be that there are seats on both flights you are asking about. But, if you ask, “which flight has the larger load factor?” you’ll be told there are just two seats left on this one, eight on that one.
- Using the phrase “load factor” also will help you avoid the dreaded middle seat.
- Yes, it’s a reservation to you, but that scrambled combo of letters and numbers is a locator number to the reservations folk.
- Besides, a “reservation” can disappear in 24 hours, but a “locator number” can be extended with a phone call for another 24.
Measure Total Trip Time
Factor in doorstep-to-doorstep time instead of flight time.
Strange as it sounds, a connection can be faster than a non-stop because you might be avoiding crush hour traffic at one end or the other.
Sometimes, the train is faster (and cheaper).
I never fly between NYC and Boston, or NYC and Washington, DC, because Amtrak is faster, cheaper and more convenient. By delivering me downtown, I avoid expensive trips to and from the airport, and check-in time.
Be Nice to the Gate Attendant
Understand the power that gate attendants have – and don’t. Now that airlines are selling everything from early boarding to seat upgrades, it is rare you will get any perks without giving up dollars or miles.
Roomy bulkhead seats are saved until close to departure for the tall, the parentally challenged, and those who ask nicely and are neatly dressed.
Courteous and professional gets your ticket looked up in the computer, where your frequent flyer mileage deposits prove you to be a regular rather than a blue-mooner.
Don’t Leave the Airport
Sure, finding a nearby motel is more comfortable, but in a raging snowstorm a couple of years ago, I passed up the last room in town to spend the night sleeping at the gate, even though the first flight out the next morning was sold out.
My gamble paid off — I was right there waiting to be first on the standby list, and got on that first flight home.
- If your flight is cancelled, contact the airline’s customer service hotline immediately, or its social media while you are waiting in line for a gate agent to help.
Have a Paper Trail
Sure, an e-ticket on your mobile device is handy, and definitely eco-friendly.
But if the airline computer system goes down – and that happens occasionally there’s no record of your reservation, and you could be denied boarding. Also, mobile phones have been known to run out of battery power just when you need them most.
Call me old-fashioned, but I always check in online and print out my ticket, which shows boarding time, seat, and whether or not the airline has okayed me for the TSA pre-check fast pass line.
More importantly, if you have to re-book on another airline, as I did recently because of a mechanical problem, a paper ticket reduces airline-to-airline transfer to a mere pain, not a tear-your-hair-out emergency.
- Don’t leave a paper ticket behind in the seatback.
- The barcode and all that flight information can by read by cyber thieves to know more about you than you’d like.
- Ditto, don’t share your full ticket information on your social media, for the same reason.
Consider Alternative Airports
Consider nearby airports, such Houston’s Hobby, Chicago’s Midway, Washington’s Dulles, New York City’s Stewart or Islip, Providence instead of Boston, Ft. Lauderdale instead of Miami, Burbank or San Diego instead of Los Angeles, Idaho Falls instead of Jackson Hole.
These “secondary” airports are less congested and more likely to be served by low-cost carriers such as Southwest.
Car rental rates also tend to be lower than at their bigger siblings, and you’ll get your checked baggage faster, too.
As dumb as that sounds, recently I missed my flight because the travel agent who changed my ticket neglected to tell me that it was a different airline and connection, and two hours earlier than the original flight plan.
Another time, I nearly missed my flight because the gate number on the ticket I printed out the night before had changed by the time I got to the airport, practically at the other end of the terminal. It was a sprint.
Yes, we road warriors have stories. Lots of them.
- Sign up for email or text alerts. Even though you are using a paper ticket (see above), sign up with the airline’s app or website to advise you on last minute changes.
Never put valuables, such as electronics, jewelry or medicines in checked baggage.
I won’t even check my little pouch of chargers for my various gadgets, including my camera, since replacing them would be a time-consuming nightmare.
- Weigh your bags at home before you check them, to be sure you don’t go over the weight limits and be hit with overweight fees.
- Here’s my tip for how to weigh your luggage on your bathroom scale.
Keep a Toiletries Kit Packed and Ready
Save time and stress by keeping one dedicated toiletries kit just for travel, and refill or replace items the morning after you get home, while you still remember that you just stomped the toothpaste tube flat empty.
- ecoXplorer tip – I have two different kits – one for long trips with everything I think I’ll need for a week or two, for a checked bag, and another slimmed down version for carry-on that meets with TSA regulations limiting liquids.
Join the Club
Get a TSA Pre-Check card. It will speed you through TSA security lines.
Get a Global Entry card – It will speed you through both TSA security lines and US Customs.
Join airline frequent flyer and hotel frequent stay programs. They are free to join and give you perks like priority boarding (airlines) and free upgrades (hotels).
This article was published originally in 2015
and has been updated for 2022.
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter is a journalist with 20+ years of experience as a newspaper and magazine writer, radio & TV news producer & reporter, and author of guidebooks and smartphone apps – all focusing on travel, automotive, the environment and your rights as a consumer.
Contact me at email@example.com.
Also follow my NYC website, NYC Travel Guru
Copyright (C) Evelyn Kanter
Elli Avram says
Very helpful suggestions! Will be perfect to refer to before my next travel adventure. Thanks for sharing!
The GypsyNesters says
Great tips, thanks! Didn’t know about “load factor,” have to try that out sometime. Or better yet, we won’t need to.
Great tips! I almost missed a flight because the gate 5 I saw down the hall was actually a shuttle bus to the actual gate 5!
Janice Chung says
You had a thing ton of great tips. Interesting point you made about staying at the airport to get the standby flight. Not sure I would want to endure the night.
Kay Dougherty says
All excellent tips learned the hard way! The only one I will never do is sleep in an airport. Too high an ick factor for me! As someone who just missed a flight to a remote destination – Ushuaia Argentina – I can sadly testify to the need to keep your eye on monitors for gate changes.