9 ways to prepare for a holiday travel meltdown, from easy to extreme

‘Tis the season to be paranoid. After last winter’s travel chaos, can you blame us for feeling anxious about airports?

There was that “once in a generation storm,” and the resulting Southwest meltdown where more than 15,000 flights were canceled over the busy holiday travel stretch. Then there’s the string of airplane near-misses over the past year attributed to understaffing and outdated technology at the Federal Aviation Administration.

As the next wave of holiday travel approaches, is there any hope for us?

“If the comparison is last year, then yes, I’m feeling optimistic,” said Ganesh Sitaraman, author of “Why Flying Is Miserable: And How to Fix It.”

Scott Keyes, founder of the flight booking site Going, says bad weather will always be an X factor, but airlines are coming into the holidays on much stronger footing this December. He argues airlines have more staff than in 2022 and more planes in rotation. Cancellations are down from last year, too, from 2.7 percent to about 1.6 (through September). After the Southwest debacle, “airlines walked away with a much more conservative approach to scheduling, and now the schedules are much more realistic,” Keyes added.

The Transportation Security Administration also recorded its busiest day on record over the Thanksgiving travel period, and there were no meltdowns.

But as the old saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Here are nine ways to prepare for holiday flying, just in case, from low-lift to hardcore.


1. Easy: Buy travel insurance

To protect yourself from incurring extra costs should your plans go haywire, “get travel insurance,” said Katalina Mayorga, founder and CEO of El Camino Travel.

Before you book a policy, check to see whether the credit card you used to book the trip offers travel insurance perks; many cover costs associated with lost luggage, travel delays and weather cancellations. Then you can buy any additional coverage you want.

Mayorga goes with the company Battleface, which offers customizable coverage. For about $100 extra per person, “it’s going to be peace of mind,” Mayorga said.

2. Easy: Reserve your airport ride

Don’t wait until the last minute to figure out your airport transportation. If you’re taking a taxi, shuttle or ride-share, schedule your ride days or weeks beforehand. Uber lets you book a trip up to 90 days out, and Lyft will let you up to 30 days out.

If you’re driving yourself to the airport “reserve parking in advance,” said Brett Snyder, who runs the airline industry blog Cranky Flier. “You can do that at most airports now.” You’ll have a lot of competition, so keep sites like SpotHero in mind to find nearby buildings such as hotels that sell parking spaces and offer shuttle services to the airport.

3. Easy: Sign up for loyalty programs and apps

You don’t have to be a frequent flier to benefit from a frequent-flier program. There can be perks from signing up alone.

“Even just joining the American Airlines [AAdvantage program] you get a better boarding position,” said JT Genter, editor in chief of the travel rewards site AwardWallet. Those who don’t join end up in the last boarding groups, like 7, 8 or 9. Those who do, “you get Group 6,” Genter said. “That gets you ahead of a lot more people” - a particularly nice perk if you’re carrying on a roll-aboard you don’t want gate-checked (although, who knows anymore).

With airlines changing their loyalty programs for the worse, Sitaraman backs the growing movement to eschew status-chasing in favor of being a free agent. Instead of focusing on flying one carrier only for the sake of points, “I usually will look for the airlines with the most convenient times,” Sitaraman said. Opening yourself up to more airline options may help you find holiday flights that work better for you.

No matter which carrier you prefer, download your airline’s mobile app and sign up for their notifications to get contacted by phone, text, email or push alert. Those apps can alert you to gate changes and cancellations in real time, and offer you an easy way to rebook flights instead of getting in line at customer service.

4. Easy: Book nonstop, morning flights

The fewer flights you have, the less opportunity there is for something to go wrong. That’s why “I always try to fly nonstop as opposed to connecting,” said Sitaraman.

Snyder agrees. “Eliminating connection is a huge point of failure that you avoid,” he said.

While you’re shopping for flights, prioritize quieter travel days - like midweek instead of the weekend - and flights that leave as early in the day as possible. The later you leave, the greater the chance you have for delays to stack up.

“Morning flights tend to do better as a general rule,” Snyder said.

5. Medium: Arrange longer layovers

If you do arrange a connecting flight, make sure you get one with some buffer time between each leg. Even if you’re usually comfortable with 40-minute turnarounds, it’s a trickier move with holiday crowds and weather concerns.

“Build in a longer layover than you might normally do and longer than the airlines might push you toward,” Snyder said.

In an internet search, airlines will often show you itineraries in order of the total duration of your trip. Flights with the shortest connections tend to show up first, so scroll down a little more - or play with your search filter - and you should find options with longer layovers.

6. Medium: Don’t check bags

Packing light can be challenging, particularly in the winter when clothes are bulky and you’re traveling with gifts. But “if people are able to, I would recommend doing carry-on only,” Genter said. It’s not just for bragging rights; in case your flight gets canceled or seriously delayed and you want to pivot your plans, you’ll have your bag with you.


If you must check luggage, Mayorga recommends putting an AirTag inside your suitcase for tracking purposes and packing a few days worth of clothes in a carry-on bag, plus any valuables or medication. Should your bag get lost, you’ll have some belongings with you.

7. Medium: Hire help

To ensure smoother sailing, enlist the help of a professional to plan your itinerary, be on standby in case of emergency, or get through the airport fastest.

For the first two options, a travel agent or adviser is your best bet. Look for companies like Altour that offer 24/7 customer service and promise “rapid re-accommodation” with flights, hotels and car rentals. They can deal with airlines for you and fight to get you a refund.

For getting fast-tracked through the airport, try a traveler concierge company like Perq Soleil or Royal Airport Concierge. For a few hundred bucks, you’ll be met at the airport by a concierge, whisked through security like an airline employee and assisted to your gate.

8. Extreme: Book more than one flight

By The Way editor Amanda Finnegan got caught in the Southwest meltdown last year, so this year she’s not taking chances: She booked backup flights in case of cancellations or if plans need to change. If her first pick takes off according to plan, she’ll cancel the Plan B and bank a future flight credit.

She’s not alone.

“We don’t do it all the time . . . but if we have to be somewhere, we will book a flight on a separate airline just in case,” Genter said.

Genter recommends booking your backup using points or miles for the easiest refund option. Most U.S. airlines will not charge you a cancellation fee if you booked with rewards, although the keyword is “most.”


If you aren’t using miles, the move is even more complicated. You’ll need to know your airline’s cancellation policy inside and out. Do they charge a fee if you cancel within a certain time period? If you cancel, can you get flight credits? Does the policy change depending on the type of ticket you booked?

Not all experts are keen on travelers booking backup flights. “It just makes it more expensive and difficult for other people to actually buy tickets to see their families,” Snyder said. “There are only so many seats around, so that’s just not cool.”

9. Extreme: Don’t go

To eliminate all potential for disaster, skip the trip.

“The actual best advice for holiday travel is if you can avoid it, just don’t do it,” Keyes said. “It’s the most crowded time of the year to fly. It’s the most expensive time of year to fly. It’s when bad weather starts to hit.”

And for those reasons - plus his family living nearby, “I’m staying home,” Keyes said.