How to Prepare for Holiday Crowds at Airports This Year

Over a quarter of Americans (26%) say they specifically did not travel during the 2020 winter holiday season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new NerdWallet survey. Of those who did travel, many skipped out on air travel in favor of other means of transportation, like road trips.

In fact, according to the September 2021 NerdWallet survey conducted by The Harris Poll of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, just 19% of Americans say they spent money on flights or hotel stays during the 2020 holiday travel season.

That measly figure is set to more than double, as 43% of Americans say they intend to spend money on flights or hotel stays for the 2021 holiday season. With a huge uptick in demand, expect long security lines and more competition for booking flights. Thankfully, you can mitigate travel chaos without forgoing the airport completely.

Here are four ways to help avoid potential air travel fiascos this year.

1. Apply for TSA PreCheck now

TSA PreCheck is a type of Trusted Traveler program offered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ​​that allows members to use expedited lanes at more than 200 U.S. airports. Anyone who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident is eligible to apply.

Once approved, you’ll go through a designated security line that won’t force you to remove your shoes, laptop, belt or jacket, which helps cut down on wait times. In fact, 96% of TSA PreCheck passengers waited less than five minutes in line in September 2021, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

There are two major steps to applying for TSA PreCheck:

  1. Complete a roughly 10-minute, in-person appointment.
  2. Pay an $85 application fee for membership, which is good for five years.

But given the crowds expected this year (and in subsequent years), it’s worth putting in the effort to apply now — when you’re less frazzled — rather than be annoyed by airport security lines the day before Thanksgiving.

You might be able to get the application fee refunded entirely. Many travel credit cards provide a statement credit for the application fee if you pay for it with the card.

2. Escape to an airport lounge

You’ve prepared yourself not to get into a fight over politics at the family dinner table. You’ve overcome the stress of buying gifts. And you finally made it through airport security.

Don’t let a fight over the last remaining power outlet in the terminal be what sets you over the edge.

Instead, escape the blaring loudspeakers paging passengers and find yourself a chair that’s actually designed to be comfortable for the human body. There, you can drink as much coffee as you want — while avoiding the crowded cafe line entirely.

This wonderland that awaits you is an airport lounge, which often offers all-you-can-eat food, comfortable seating, better Wi-Fi and sometimes even fancy amenities, like showers and nap rooms.

The easiest and lowest-cost way to gain admission is by holding a credit card with complimentary membership to Priority Pass, a network of more than 1,300 airport lounges worldwide.

3. Be thoughtful about your luggage

Whether carry-on versus checked baggage is a better choice for navigating airport crowds depends on your situation, as there are pros and cons to each.

By flying with only carry-on luggage, you’re more easily able to change plans. Should you need to reschedule a flight once you’re past security, you have the flexibility to change routes without panicking that you’ll be separated from your stuff. You’ll also likely be able to check in online and completely avoid the check-in counter upon arrival.

But by checking bags, you’re more free to roam the airport. You can use the bathroom without cramming your rolling suitcase behind the stall door. There’s no rush to board as soon as possible just to secure overhead bin space. While checked bag fees are certainly annoying, many airline credit cards offer free checked bags. Or fly with Southwest, which lets your first two checked bags fly free.

4. Skip the rental car counter (even if you’re renting a car)

You waited in security, survived the mobs of people at the boarding gate and made it through the flight. The last thing you probably want to do is stand in another line at the rental car counter.

Thankfully, many car rental companies allow renters with elite status to skip it entirely. With status in National Car Rental’s Emerald Club, you can choose any vehicle in its Emerald Aisle area and drive off, as the keys are already in the car. Avis offers a similar benefit to even the lowest-tiered members of its Avis Preferred loyalty program.

Even better, you can get rental car elite status (even if you’ve never rented with that company before) simply by holding certain credit cards or leveraging any existing status you have with certain hotel and airline loyalty programs. See if your credit card offers automatic car rental elite status, or consider applying for one that does.

If you’re going to travel this holiday season

As travelers feel more comfortable boarding planes, workers try to burn their accumulated vacation days and revelers make up for last year’s missed celebrations, airports are going to be packed with rusty vacationers.

Don’t let your holiday start on a sour note by subjecting yourself to a stressful airport experience. Get your memberships, documentation and luggage in order now to escape the brunt of airport chaos.