The busiest travel season of the year is about to kick off, and Americans are already on the move. The Transportation Security Administration is seeing a record-breaking number of people passing through airport checkpoints - and bracing for more to come.
James Ferrara, co-founder and president of InteleTravel, says this isn’t a fleeting surge, but the new normal for travel in America.
That means the next time you walk into an airport, you can expect crowds and construction, long lines, packed lounges and a shortage of open electric outlets. In some cases, extreme weather and labor issues have exacerbated the strain on airports, leading to cancellations that come with little warning and add thousands of dollars in unplanned expenses.
It’s all a recipe for stress and disruption. But swarmed airports don’t have to ruin your trip. Here are seven tips for making the experience a little smoother.
1. Pack with the airport in mind
As you pack for your trip, don’t just think about what you need at your destination. Think about how each item might cost you time getting through the airport. Ferrara, recommends packing light so you can take a carry-on, letting you skip waits at check-in and baggage claim. “You can walk off the plane and jump right into vacation mode,” he said.
Start with a completely empty bag, checking every little pocket to make sure nothing is in there. You don’t want to get held up at security because you forgot you had a wine opener in your backpack.
Then make sure what you are packing is TSA-approved for checked or carry-on luggage. Remember the “3-1-1″ rule: Each passenger may carry liquids, gels and aerosols in travel-size containers that are 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters in a one-quart bag. TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein encourages travelers to consult the “What Can I Bring?” page on TSA’s website or the MyTSA app. It’s a helpful resource to check whether you’re trying to pack a liquid or solid (in case you missed it: peanut butter is a liquid).
Beyond your usual essentials, consider packing items that can save some money or make the airport less miserable. Think snacks, a reusable water bottle, something to read and portable power banks so you don’t have to fight over outlets.
2. Try a mental exercise
If you’re really anxious about heading to a crowded airport, mental exercises can help you chill out. Mark Debus, manager of the behavioral health team at Sedgwick, has been preparing clients who are returning to the workforce - including a return to business travel - with visualization techniques.
Debus recommends picturing what the scene will be like ahead of time. Anticipate the huge lines, the angry travelers, the process of taking off your shoes and putting your belongings on the conveyor belt. The exercise can help you feel better prepared for the potential chaos.
3. Make extra time for every task
Even if you’re someone who lives for the thrill of cutting your arrival time dangerously close, consider giving yourself more time than usual to get to (and through) the airport.
Travelers planning on parking at the airport should anticipate spending longer looking for a spot. If you’re renting a car, you should expect more of a wait while picking up and dropping off. You will probably encounter lines every step of the way, from check-in to the Starbucks by your gate.
“We’ve already seen several days with more than 2.6 million travelers coming through our security checkpoints and more of that is on the way. So when we advise people to get to the airport early, we are not kidding,” Farbstein said.
Anticipate long lines for sit-down and takeaway restaurants, and consider downloading apps for your go-to spots. Big chains like Starbucks, Dunkin’ and Chick-fil-A have apps for mobile ordering for a quicker pickup experience. There are also airport-specific apps such as Grab.
4. Invest in line-cutting services and loyalty programs
Vacation travel brings a lot of families to the airport, and people trying to wrangle strollers, car seats and missing toys are bound to slow down security checkpoints.
Ferrara says that besides getting to the airport early, getting a line-cutting service such as Clear or TSA PreCheck (or both!) is his best tip for travelers to survive hectic airports.
“Clear speeds up the travel-document check process, while TSA PreCheck expedites the physical screening process,” Ferrara says. “But having both services complement each other greatly, providing the quickest, surest route through the entire airport security and screening experience.”
Good news for traveling families: TSA announced that passengers ages 13 to 17 can accompany their parents or guardians in the PreCheck line, as long as the family members are traveling with the same reservation. That means teens can wear shoes, belts and light jackets through the security checkpoint and can leave their laptops and travel-sized liquids in their carry-on.
Ferrara also recommends you start building status with your favorite airline’s frequent-flier membership. Loyalty programs can eventually get you priority boarding, access to private lounges, upgraded seating and sometimes security benefits similar to Clear.
5. Use mobile apps to stay informed
Download your airline’s app to easily track your flight status and simplify check-in.
Drake Castañeda, a Delta Air Lines spokesperson, said the Fly Delta app can alert you of flight changes in real-time, let you change your assigned seat, provide airport maps, show information on airport lounges, help you access in-flight WiFi and send a push notification when it’s time to board.
You can also download the MyTSA app to check security wait times and airport delay information.
6. Take a deep breath - or 10
Debus recommends adding an extra hour to the standard airport arrival time for your mental health. “That way, you have enough buffer after the checkpoint to then focus on relaxing before your flight,” he said.
When you get there, find a gate near yours that is less crowded and try Debus’s “10 breaths” technique. Start by finding a quiet place where you can sit upright. Put one hand over your belly button, close your eyes and inhale for three seconds while you focus on pushing your belly out. Hold your breath for three seconds. Exhale for three seconds. Repeat the exercise for 10 rounds.
“You’re doing diaphragm breathing rather than chest breathing,” Debus said. “Chest breathing will usually increase anxiety. Diaphragm breathing usually releases anxiety.”
7. Stay calm when things go wrong
Flight canceled because of weather? Airline gave away your seat? Airport lost your luggage? All sorts of incidents can derail your travel plans and leave you wallowing in the airport.
It’s best to jump into action right away when things go awry, whether that’s asking for a backup flight that fits your schedule better than your automatic reassignment or getting in line at the customer service desk to get help faster.