I travel a lot. In fact, I've been on 79 flights, on 27 different airlines, and visited 20 countries so far in 2010, and it's not yet December.
Since I've been through my fair share of security checkpoints, I pretty much have it down when it comes to navigating the maze. The whole media buzz surrounding Wednesday's national "opt-out" day is a joke -- I don't think it's going to be any crazier than it usually is the day before Thanksgiving. Still, you'd have to pay me a lot to fly on Nov. 24 or any other peak holiday travel day. That's because it's much more expensive and the airports and planes are so crowded. It just takes the fun out of travel.
Worst of all, these days bring out what professional travelers call rookies: people who travel once or twice a year and have no clue about the procedures and tricks. If you fall into this category, then you'll want to read these tips because it won't make just your travels smoother but everyone else's around you.
Show Up Early
It's not rocket science but don't wait until the last minute to get to the airport. According to AAA, there will be a record number of people traveling this Thanksgiving weekend -- 42.2 million Americans are expected to travel 50 miles or more, so expect traffic getting to the airport. According to the Air Transport Association, it's estimated that around 24 million people will take to the skies during the 12-day period surrounding Thanksgiving Day.
It doesn't take a mathematician to realize that the lines at the airport will be long. If you don't have a friend or family member giving you a ride, book your taxi/shuttle or parking space well in advance. Most off-airport parking facilities allow users to pre-pay -- it's not only cheaper but it prevents the panic of showing up to a parking lot entrance only to see a Lot Full sign. I use Airport Parking Reservations and Park 'N Fly .
You should receive an email from your airline or travel agency 24 hours prior to departure saying it's time to check in. Hopefully, you secured your seat assignment when you purchased your ticket. If you didn't, do it now and print your boarding pass. If you don't have access to a printer you can still check in online and choose the option to pick up the boarding pass from a self-service kiosk at the airport. Bonus Tip: some airlines offer mobile boarding passes but I don't recommend them since not all TSA readers function properly.
Biggest waste of time? Waiting behind people to access a self-service kiosk. For some reason, some people just stand at the front of the line waiting to be called when there are clearly free machines. If you see a vacant kiosk either tell the person in front or go to it yourself. To use them you don't need to write down your confirmation number (but it's a good backup); just slide any of your credit/debit cards for it to register. It doesn't have to be the one you paid with either; they only read your card information to identify you.
By checking in online, you pretty much guarantee that you will not be involuntarily bumped from your flight. Unfortunately, some airlines oversell their flights betting a small percentage won't show up. But when all passengers are present, they need to bump someone. First they ask for volunteers (this is a great way to score future flight credits) but if no one bites, they'll start bumping, usually those without seat assignments. This is fine if you're not trying to make it in time for a turkey but lousy if your travel window is narrow.
Book the Early Flight Out
Chances are it's already too late to tell you to book an early morning flight, which increases your chances of an on-time departure. But I'm throwing it in here so you will know for Christmas or the next time you fly. Typically, the first flights out in the morning have the best on-time records and the delays increase as the day progresses -- especially if there's bad weather in one of the major hub cities.
Seasoned travelers know taking too many clothes for a trip is a huge mistake. You really don't need four pairs of shoes, pants, sweaters, and so on for a long weekend trip, now do you? Cut your wardrobe by half so it fits in a carry-on bag. If you can't do this, or if you have presents to bring, then ship everything ahead of time using FedEx Ground or UPS. The key is to allow at least five days so you will get a reasonable price. The advantage is that it's usually cheaper than the airlines' baggage fees (except Southwest since they allow two free bags) and it's definitely more reliable. You don't even need to put them in a box. I just bring my suitcase as is.
By shipping stuff ahead of time, you'll make your airport experience so much better. You won't need to show up extra early and best of all, when you land, there's no standing around waiting for your bag to appear on the carousel (that's if your bag even makes it). If you're staying at a hotel write "HOTEL GUEST, your name, and your arrival date between the hotel's name and the street address. If you're carrying presents on the plane, don't bother wrapping them because chances are the TSA will want to see the contents inside. And although this should be totally obvious to everyone by now, don't ever check valuables, cash, or medications.
Security checkpoints aren't as bad as everyone makes them out to be. This is especially true if you allow plenty of time to get through them. One thing is for sure: If everyone is prepared, they will go much smoother. The first thing you need to do is have your boarding pass and ID out (if using a passport, open it to your picture page). Then look for experienced business travelers, usually dressed in suits, and get in line behind them. While waiting your turn for the conveyor belt, begin to put all your belongings (except cash or credit cards) from your pants/shirt pockets into your jacket pockets, then take your jacket and sweater off and place them in a bin. Be sure that your liquids are in containers that hold no more than three ounces, and the containers all fit in a single one-quart clear plastic bag. See the TSA website for more.
Place your laptop in a separate bin. What I like to do is put my shoes in front of my belongings (they don't need to go in a bin). I wear slip-on shoes so I can be quick. I then put the bin with my jacket and phone second, followed by my carry-on bag. The reason I do this is because the agent usually takes a few seconds to stare at the monitor of my carry-on since it has so many electronic goods and while they are doing that, I can put on my belongings.
Don't be a fool and just put your bag on the conveyor belt and walk away. You need to push your belongings onto the moving belt and stay until you can't see them anymore -- why you wouldn't want to do that anyway, I don't understand, because a thief behind you could easily snag your valuables.
Finish reading the rest of my holiday travel Tips on Frommers.com
John E. DiScala (a.k.a. Johnny Jet) travels around 150,000 miles and visits over 20 countries each year. Sign up today for Johnny Jet's free weekly travel newsletter at JohnnyJet.com and follow him live on Twitter @JohnnyJet.