No Silent Night: Navigating the World’s Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season
No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Long Lines Ahead: Brace for Security and Check-in Delays
The holiday season is one of the busiest times to travel, with airports packed to the brim with travelers heading home or escaping the cold on vacation. Unfortunately, the massive influx of passengers trying to get through security and check-in during this time of year means you’re almost guaranteed to face long lines and delays at the airport.
According to TSA checkpoint travel numbers, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is consistently one of the busiest travel days at US airports. In 2019, the TSA screened over 2.8 million passengers on December 1st alone. The agency also warns that the Sunday after Christmas and New Year’s Day also see massive crowds. And the situation isn’t much better abroad. Photos of endless security queues at Heathrow and Gatwick Airports frequently pop up on social media each holiday season.
What’s behind these horrendous lines? It mainly comes down to the sheer volume of passengers during the holidays. Families traveling together slow down the process as they juggle assorted liquids and laptops. And leisure travelers who only fly once a year are less practiced at navigating security, making mistakes that add frustration and delays. Limits on TSA and airline staffing also strain resources.
Frequent flyers share nightmarish tales of holiday travel that see even elite status-holders stuck in endless snaking security lines or unable to find empty seats in packed lounges. Some arrive ridiculously early just to avoid the worst crowds, only to end up waiting 2+ hours at the gate for their flight. Others get duped by the online check-in process but still need to stand in a long line to drop off luggage. And good luck finding a cab at the airport if your flight is delayed past midnight.
It's vital to plan ahead and brace yourself for airport congestion to avoid total holiday travel meltdowns. Get to the airport earlier than normal, pack smart to speed your trip through security, and confirm your flight status before leaving home. Charge devices beforehand and bring snacks and entertainment so you don't waste time scrambling at the airport. Most importantly, stay calm and patient - yelling at airline staff or fellow travelers won't make the line move any faster. Accept that delays and crowds are inevitable this time of year.
What else is in this post?
- No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Long Lines Ahead: Brace for Security and Check-in Delays
- No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Deck the Terminals: Holiday Crowds Equal Airport Chaos
- No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Plan Ahead: Arrive Early and Confirm Flight Status
- No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Charge Devices: Outlets and Charging Stations Will Be in Demand
- No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Shop Smart: Avoid Impulse Purchases in Crowded Airport Shops
- No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - BYO Snacks: Dining Options May Be Limited
- No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Monitor Your Luggage: Don't Let Bags Get Lost in the Shuffle
- No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Keep Calm: De-stress with Lounges, Spas or Meditation Rooms
No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Deck the Terminals: Holiday Crowds Equal Airport Chaos
From twinkling lights to towering Christmas trees, airports worldwide deck their terminals with cheerful holiday decor to get travelers in the spirit of the season. But the festive adornments do little to brighten the mood when you’re stuck in an overcrowded terminal scrambling to make your connection. Holiday crowds turn the terminals into chaos, with seating scarcity and concourse congestion adding stress to your travels.
While airports try their best to spread holiday cheer, the massive influx of passengers often leads to less than silent nights. During Christmas/New Year’s peak, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport sees over 275,000 passengers daily. O’Hare clocks in over 200,000 on their busiest days. And even smaller airports feel the holiday crunch. Pittsburgh International had their busiest day ever on 27 November 2021 with over 58,000 travelers.
Finding a place to sit down can be mission impossible with holiday passenger loads. Savvy travelers squat on the floor near their gates while families sprawl out on the carpet playing games. Lounges frequently hit capacity by mid-morning, leaving status members out of luck. Remain patient and avoid frustration when you can’t find a seat - everyone’s in the same boat.
Navigating through crowded concourses to your gate is akin to competing in a contact sport. You’ll be jostled by swarming passengers with no regard for personal space. Make sure you have plenty of time to get to your gate, as you’ll be moving at a snail’s pace. Use airport maps to find less congested routes when possible. Don’t expect to do any last minute duty free shopping, as holiday crowds pack the stores.
The boarding process also slows down significantly due to larger passenger loads, families needing extra time, and infrequent travelers unsure what to do. Queue up for your zone early to avoid being left behind. Once onboard, cabin baggage struggles intensify with limited bin space. Just accept the fact that delays are inevitable and pack your patience.
Holiday crowds do provide some entertainment as you watch the pandemonium unfold. You’ll witness exasperated parents, airport meltdowns, and people dressed in hideous matching sweaters. Find the joy in people watching amidst the chaos, as there’s bound to be comical scenes. Leverage airport amenities like yoga rooms and spas to relax during your wait. Avoid reactive mode and go with the flow.
No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Plan Ahead: Arrive Early and Confirm Flight Status
The airport is not the place you want to be stuck scrambling during the stressful holiday rush. Savvy travelers know it’s vital to plan ahead and arrive early to avoid getting derailed. Confirm your flight status before departing and factor in extra time for traffic and airport lines. Travel pros have learned the hard way that failing to prepare leads to holiday travel nightmares.
Frequent flyer Torsten shared his cautionary tale of cutting it too close one Christmas at Washington Dulles Airport. Despite his Clear membership and TSA PreCheck status, the security line still took 35 minutes. By the time he reached his gate, boarding had already commenced and he was given a dreaded standby assignment.
The frazzled gate agent said they had to close the flight early due to ATC ground stop programs implemented to manage congestion. With his upgrade at risk, Torsten had to sweat it out until the bitter end to finally snag that last seat in first class. A little extra buffer would’ve saved him major stress.
Denver-based consultant Alicia recommends arriving 2 hours before your flight minimum during the holidays. She pushes it to 2.5 hours for international and 3 hours if checking a bag. She’s missed flights before by thinking an hour was enough time, so she builds in plenty of cushion. That gives her time for traffic, parking, luggage check, security, bathroom breaks, and walking between concourses.
Frequent travelers also highlight the importance of confirming your flight status before leaving for the airport. Boston-based Elite member Erica got burned one year when she arrived at Logan Airport and found out her flight to Memphis had been canceled hours earlier. Since she lives just 15 minutes from the airport, she didn’t bother to check before departing.
The airline had notified passengers of the cancellation, but she had ignored the email, not expecting a schedule change on Christmas Eve. With most other flights sold out, she got stuck paying over $700 for an alternate flight on another airline. Now she always double checks her flight status before heading to the airport to avoid surprises.
No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Charge Devices: Outlets and Charging Stations Will Be in Demand
With holiday crowds packing airports and flights delayed by winter weather, getting stranded without a charged phone or device is every traveler’s nightmare. Outlets and charging stations are hot commodities during the peak season rush as passengers scramble to juice up before flights. Savvy jetsetters know it’s vital to charge up beforehand and pack back-up power banks and charging cables.
Janette, a school teacher from Raleigh, learned this lesson the hard way when trying to get to Cancun last Christmas. Her American Airlines flight from RDU Airport got delayed over 5 hours due to maintenance issues, and her phone died 3 hours in with still no update. With other passengers swarming the few available outlets, she couldn’t charge up and had no way to tell her resort she’d be arriving late.
Stranded passengers surrounded gate staff begging for updates. Several people tried using airport courtesy phones, only to find out they needed a credit card to place international calls. The airport PA system was unintelligible, so they were in the dark without devices charged. Once the flight finally boarded, Janette vowed never to fly without a back-up power bank during the holidays again.
Patrick, a businessman from DC, has charging down to a science after too many close calls on the road. He brings a high capacity Anker PowerCore power bank that can charge his iPhone 8+ times on a single charge. He charges devices in the lounges when possible, bringing his own multi USB plug. If outlets are scarce at the gate, he’ll juice up in the restroom or while grabbing food.
Frequent flyers highlight the necessity of packing your own cables, as borrowing from others risks spreading germs. Patrick brings a variety of iPhone, micro USB and USB C cables to be prepared. He says holiday crowds turn charging stations into bacterial infection stations.
Savvy travelers also recommend bringing old devices as back-ups in case your phone dies. Patrick keeps an old iPhone charged in his bag that he can pop his sim card into if needed. Some pack portable laptop batteries as back-up for phones and tablets too.
It’s also key to disable any apps that drain battery in the background. Frequent flyer Marie from Seattle turns on Airplane Mode once she’s past security to save power in case of delays. She brings books and magazines as back-up entertainment in case her devices die.
No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Shop Smart: Avoid Impulse Purchases in Crowded Airport Shops
Holiday crowds flocking airports make for prime conditions to overspend on impulse purchases in crowded airport shops. From souvenir tees emblazoned with city names to neck pillows dangling from impulse buy racks, it's all too easy to swipe your credit card on travel trinkets you don't really need. Savvy jetsetters warn avoiding these unnecessary expenditures is key to keeping holiday travel costs down.
Marie, a frequent flyer out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, admits to dropping up to $100 on random gifts and snacks while killing time before flights during the busy holiday season. "The airport shops are danger zones when you have time to browse and the terminals are packed with bored passengers ready to swipe their cards," she said. "I've definitely made impulse buys I regretted later, like a $40 travel blanket that wasn't even soft."
This year, Marie is determined to curb extravagant airport expenditures that put a dent in her travel budget. She'll be eating any snacks she brings from home and limiting herself to $20 in emergency purchases if absolutely needed.
James, who frequently travels through Chicago O'Hare, has been burned by impulse buys at Hudson News shops one too many times. "Last year, I spent almost $75 on magazines, neck pillows and overpriced chocolate," he said. "I don't even know what happened - I just got sucked into grabbing stuff while killing time."
This holiday season, James is sticking to the essentials only. He'll bring an empty water bottle to fill post-security and pack plenty of podcasts and books on his phone to keep him entertained at the gate. If he gets hungry, he'll opt for grabbing something on the plane versus splurging on pricey snacks.
Patrick, who frequently flies through crowded hubs like LAX and JFK, has impulse purchases down to a science after years of trial and error. "I've learned to avoid even going into crowded airport shops to resist the temptation to spend," he said. He follows the "what happens in the duty free, stays in the duty free" mantra.
All three frequent flyers agree avoiding time browsing airport shops is the number one way to curb impulse purchases. Bring your own entertainment and snacks you actually enjoy. If you do need to grab something, set a firm budget cap ahead of time. Take inventory of what you actually need for the flight and stick to essential purchases only. Limit yourself to one magazine or paperback and a budget-friendly snack.
No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - BYO Snacks: Dining Options May Be Limited
Holiday crowds can pack airport restaurants and kiosks to the brim, leaving travelers stranded with grumbling stomachs and few appealing dining options. Savvy jetsetters know it's key to bring your own snacks to avoid getting hangry amidst the airport chaos. Searching for a place to grab a quick bite between connections frequently becomes mission impossible once terminals are teeming with passengers.
Marie, who often connects through Charlotte Douglas International Airport, learned this lesson the hard way a few years back when trying to catch a flight from CLT to Cancun two days before Christmas. Her inbound American Airlines flight arrived late after being delayed out of Chicago O'Hare, leaving her only 35 minutes to grab food before boarding her connection. She rushed to find something to eat, but every restaurant had epic lines 20+ people deep.
With no time to wait, she wound up famished on the 4 hour flight to Mexico. "Once the holidays hit, buying food at the airport turns into the Hunger Games," Marie said. "Lines get crazy long at every restaurant so I now always pack snacks to avoid going hungry if I don't have time for a sit-down meal."
Patrick, who frequently flies through crowded airports like LAX, now prepares for food scarcity by bringing non-perishable snacks like protein bars, mixed nuts and dried fruit. "Past trips trying to grab a quick bite at the airport around the holidays have been disastrous," he said.
"Food courts overflow with passengers and restaurants frequently run out of popular grab-and-go items as crowds clean out their inventories." Rather than waste precious pre-flight time searching for food, Patrick heads straight for his gate after security and snacking on his stash.
James, who often flies through Chicago O'Hare, Stockholm Arlanda and London Heathrow airports during peak holiday times, has airport dining down to a science. "If you actually want a hot meal at the airport without massive wait times, you have to think strategically," he advises.
He recommends eating at off-peak times, like late morning or mid-afternoon when crowds thin slightly. Finding restaurants outside of main terminals and concourses also improves your chances of snagging a table quickly. He scopes out airport lounges ahead of time which offer free snacks and light bites to tide him over if time is tight.
Travel experts also highlight how packed flights mean that onboard meal service takes longer. So make sure to pack nutritious snacks you can eat during that extended beverage-only drink service. Pre-packaged sandwiches, protein bars, mixed nuts, fresh fruit and cheese sticks all travel well. Bringing an empty water bottle through security allows you to fill up at a fountain once inside to avoid $4 in-flight water purchases too.
No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Monitor Your Luggage: Don't Let Bags Get Lost in the Shuffle
Holiday crowds and winter weather delays make airports a prime spot for bags to get lost in the shuffle. With massive numbers of travelers checking luggage and ramp workers struggling to load all those bags in a narrow window, it’s no surprise that airlines have a much higher rate of mishandled bags during the peak season. Savvy travelers know monitoring luggage every step of the way is key to avoiding heartache if your belongings go astray.
Janette, the school teacher from Raleigh who barely made her Christmas flight to Cancun, experienced this headache firsthand. With no time to spare, she had to gate check her carry-on suitcase in DC before sprinting to catch her connection. Once she arrived in Cancún, exhausted from the travel chaos, she stood waiting at baggage claim for over an hour until realizing her bag didn’t make it. She had to file a claim and buy toiletries and clothes to get through the next few days until the airline located her luggage.
Patrick, a veteran travel hacker, cautions that gate checking bags during the holidays is a risky move since it requires an extra handoff between airline and airport staff. He recalls a disastrous trip where he complied with a gate agent request to check his carry-on at the last minute. “By the time I arrived at LAX, that bag was nowhere to be found. The airline insisted it was the airport’s responsibility.”
After spending hours trying to track it down, his suitcase finally turned up on a late flight three days later. Now Patrick refuses to gate check bags and will personally wheel them down the jet bridge if needed to avoid handing off possession.
Frequent flyer Marie highlights keeping eyes on your luggage during baggage drop off and arrivals as key inflection points where things get missed. Last year, her aunt’s bag went astray on a Hawaii trip after the airline apparently neglected to load it. Make sure you verify tags match your destination and that the attendant scans your luggage tag barcode. Don’t walk away until it’s fully tagged and loaded on the conveyor belt.
Upon arrival, Marie recommends hanging back to identify your suitcase coming down the belt. She’s had her black roller bag taken by other passengers inadvertently. Hit airline staff up right away if your luggage doesn’t appear versus waiting hours hoping it shows up.
Also beware of departure boards switching your flight’s baggage belt at the last minute if a gate changes. This nearly caused travel blogger Erica to miss spotting her bag arriving late. Set up flight alerts and keep wandering back to check arrival monitors for belt changes.
Experts say avoiding checking bags altogether around the holidays limits risks. If you must check luggage, add exterior ID tags and bright ribbons to make it easier to spot on the carousel. Pack valuables like medications and electronics in your carry-on. Also photograph your bags’ contents to make claims processing easier if something goes awry.
No Silent Night: Navigating the World's Most Hectic Airports this Holiday Season - Keep Calm: De-stress with Lounges, Spas or Meditation Rooms
The peak holiday travel season is a anxiety-inducing time full of crowds, delays, and general chaos. With frazzled travelers crammed around congested gates awaiting info on their inevitable flight delays, tensions frequently run high. Savvy jetsetters know the secret to keeping your cool is taking advantage of airport amenities like lounges, spas and meditation rooms when available. Escaping the masses to decompress in a calming space helps avoid full-on airport meltdowns.
Marie, a Seattle-based business traveler who logs hundreds of thousands of miles a year, swears by escaping to Delta Sky Club lounges when facing holiday delays at hub airports. "When you've got a five hour sits and countless flight cancellations, the airport turns into a pressure cooker," she said. "Being able to unwind in a lounge with free food, drinks and a place to charge my phone has been a lifesaver."
Last December, Marie was stranded overnight in Atlanta enroute to Cancun when her flight got cancelled last minute. Rather than camping out with the restless crowds, she gained some zen time recharging in the lounge. Comfy chairs, free cocktails, and a shower the next morning helped ease the pain.
James, who frequently travels through Chicago O'Hare, recommends booking access to American Express Centurion Lounges when facing longholiday layovers. "For about $50, you can get a relaxing sit-down meal, premium drinks, high-speed WiFi and a cowd-free place to work," he said. Access to showers, family rooms and spa treatments also help take the edge off travel meltdowns.
Patrick, who often connects through crazy terminals like LAX and DFW, makes use of airport chapels to meditate and stretch when crowds get chaotic. "Being able to do yoga and take a few minutes for mindfulness in the interfaith chapel makes a world of difference when I'm stressed about delays," he said.
For those without lounge access, escaping to less crowded terminals to find a quiet gate seating area can offer much needed personal space. Seeking out specialty amenities like airport spas for a neck massage or manicure provides holiday indulgence. Patrick also recommends downloading meditation apps like Calm to find zen amidst the madness of holiday travel disruptions.
Travel pros say the key is having contingency plans for how to indulge in affordable stress relief. Do your homework to identify airport lounges, quiet zones and other hidden gem amenities available. Many airports also have free yoga rooms, napping suites and movie theaters that provide an escape from chaotic gates. Booking premium experiences like spa services ahead of time ensures availability.