Navigate crowded, delay-prone airports this season with your sanity (and schedule) intact.
Get a head start for smooth holiday travel--here's how!
Before you leave
Look for direct flights—or those departing in the morning.
If you want to stay on schedule, skip the stopover—especially since airlines have reduced seat capacity across the board in recent years, making it hard to find a spot on alternative flights. If you must connect, fly out as early as possible.
Buy travel insurance. Protect your excursion by purchasing insurance with good trip-delay and cancellation coverage. You can compare and shop for policies at the Web sites Insuremytrip and Squaremouth. Both sites also include customer reviews.
Get a better seat. Stuck in the middle? Sign up for a free-seat alert with expertflyer.com, which lets you know when a coveted spot (aisle, window, exit row) becomes available.
When you check-in
Embrace your inner early bird. Check in at the beginning of the 24-hour window: Not only will you have a better chance of switching to a good seat (that's when airlines start releasing them), but you'll also ensure that you don't get bumped. Airlines often work from a "last in, first out" principle when a flight is oversold, with exceptions for travelers in special circumstances and loyalty-program elites. And save yourself the stress of running through a bustling airport by arriving early—even if you have Pre-Check.
Use a skycap. It only takes a few dollars at the curbside baggage check to bypass long drop-off lines inside the terminal. You can even pay for your checked bags outside. Remember: Don't wrap any presents in your luggage, or you may find that TSA has taken off the paper for a better look.
While you wait
Get happy. Your time at the airport can be enjoyed, rather than simply endured—especially with all the new amenities that hubs across the country are adding. Use GateGuru to search for stores, restaurants and even spas around you.
Stay powered. Though more airports are starting to provide charging stations for mobile phones and other electronics, open ones can be few and far between, especially when delays hit. Be sure to bring a mobile charger to stay juiced.
Use all available resources. If your flight is canceled or delayed and you want to be rebooked quickly, get on the phone and in line at the airport. Struggling to reach a rep on the toll-free number? Try dialing the alternative-language line (and then pleading to continue in English) or calling one of the airline's international numbers. Though airlines are reluctant to rebook passengers on different carriers, asking is always worth a try.
Get comfortable. Consider a day pass for an airline lounge, which comes with free food, drinks and Wi-Fi. The LoungeBuddy app can help you locate nearby spaces and tell you how much they cost.
A version of this article previously appeared in Travel + Leisure.