The holiday travel season is upon us — and it looks like an especially busy one.  Industry trade group Airlines for America projects that some 25.3 million Americans will be flying between November 20 and December 1. That’s a 3 percent rise from last year.  Lower airfares are one reason for the increase, which likely means more travelers over the Christmas holiday as well.

With flights, airports, and parking lots near capacity, air travel can be a daunting experience. Here are 9 savvy strategies to help make your journey smoother, more efficient, and all around more pleasant.

9 smart tips for airport survival this holiday season

1. Book an early-morning flight

Few of us relish the idea of getting up before dawn for a 6 a.m. flight, but there are a number of excellent reasons to choose those flights anyway. The earliest flights of the day are most likely to arrive on time, with delays increasing throughout the day. Early flights are often less expensive, as well. Traffic is generally lighter in the wee hours and security lines can be shorter (though it’s best not to count on that).

2. Pack your carry-on with care

If your trip allows you to pack light, traveling with just a carry-on is one of the best ways to save time. No need to check your bag or wait at baggage claim after your flight, hoping your bag hasn’t gone missing.

Nonetheless, when flights are completely full, there’s always a chance the overhead bins will fill up and you’ll have to check your bag after all. Or maybe you need to bring a larger bag and can’t avoid checking it. In either case, it’s a good idea to bring a smaller bag packed with essentials that you can fit under your seat. This bag should always contain your small toiletries as well as any electronics, valuables, or prescription medicines (which should never be checked). But you should also consider bringing spare socks and undergarments in case your checked bag goes astray. Also, if you like to travel in super-casual comfort, you might pack a few dressier or sturdier items of clothing that’re appropriate for your destination. (Yoga pants and flip-flops are fine on a flight — for Thanksgiving dinner in Minnesota, not so much.)

3. Ship some of your items ahead

Maybe you need to pack a lot of clothing because your trip is long or the weather at your destination is cold. Or maybe you’re bringing a lot of presents with you. You can avoid checking your bag entirely (along with any baggage fees) by shipping your items via FedEx Ground or UPS. These shippers have better reliability records than many airlines and they also allow you to track your items. Schedule your shipment at least 5 days before you leave to get a good rate.

4. Check in online

Another great way to avoid lines at the airport is to check in online through your carrier’s website. Most airlines allow you to do this up to 24 hours before departure. If you didn’t get your seat assignment when you bought your ticket, you can often take care of it here — the earlier you check in, the better your choice of seats. Then, just print out your boarding pass at home or at the airport kiosk (printing at home is often faster). If you don’t have a bag to check, you can head straight to security. If you do, many airlines offer express lines for passengers with boarding passes in hand or you can use the curbside bag check.

Online check-in may also reduce your chances of being bumped off an oversold flight, since airlines usually start with passengers without seat assignments.

Keep in mind that it may not be possible to use online check-in for international flights or if you’re traveling with a pet.

5. Get a mobile boarding pass

If you’re worried about losing or damaging a paper boarding pass or simply want to save paper, consider going mobile. Many airlines will send passengers a digital boarding pass to their mobile device via text or email. When you click the link, the pass will open either through your web browser or as a document you can download and store on your phone. Having the airline’s app on your phone isn’t usually necessary, but it can make accessing the pass easier.

Some things to keep in mind: not all airport security systems are equipped to scan digital boarding passes (check with your airline or the airport to see if the technology is available). When scanners are available, they sometimes fail to read the bar code. Also, you may need internet access to open the link, and you’ll certainly need to be sure your phone is charged.

6. Fly through security with pre-check

A long, slow line at security can derail even the best-laid travel plans. One way around it is to sign up for an expedited security screening program. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) offers TSA Pre√. Approved members are assigned a special number that lets them use a special security lane and eliminates the need for them to remove their shoes and belts or separate their liquids.

Frequent international travelers might prefer Global Entry, which lets you scan your passport and fingerprints at customs and bypass the line. This program includes TSA Pre√ and costs only slightly more. The downside is the often-lengthy approval process, which involves an interview at a Global Entry enrollment center.

A third option is the CLEAR program, which directs passengers to a special lane to have their boarding pass and fingerprints scanned, skipping the usual wait for ID check at security. The approval process is much faster for CLEAR than for the other programs. But the cost is substantially higher and the program is currently only available at a handful of airports.

And remember, you should carefully consider whether any of the above programs are right for you before signing up.

7. Stay charged up

Your flight’s been delayed and you need to text your family, but your phone is running out of juice. Or maybe you have a last-minute email to send, but your laptop battery is low. Not to worry: this Wiki guide will help you locate the power socket closest to your gate.

8. Hydrate the free and eco-friendly way

The air inside an airplane generally has very low humidity, so it’s important to stay hydrated — dry nasal membranes can make it easier to pick up germs from other passengers. Rather than buying bottled water or waiting for in-flight beverage service, bring an empty water bottle in your carry-on, and once you’re through security, fill it up at a water fountain in the terminal.

9. Keep a credit card handy

At last, you’re in the air and on your way. You’d love to catch the in-flight movie or use the airplane’s Wi-Fi, but both cost money and most airlines no longer accept cash for onboard purchases. Avoid the risk of boredom at 30,000 feet by keeping a credit card within easy reach.

Whether you’re driving this the Thanksgiving holiday or leaving your car at the airport, make sure your car is protected with a top-notch insurance policy.

And don’t forget about your home. Here’s how to keep burglars at bay while you’re away.

Best wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

Travel hacks


about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.