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My Ultimate Airport Survival Guide

I’ve had a very close relationship with airports for over 20 years. Like any couple in a long-term relationship, I’ve had to invest a lot of effort into making it work. Living in NYC I also happen to use three of the top ten worst airports in America for everything from on-time departures, arrivals, amenities, quality of toilet paper… you name it. There’s no doubt that post-pandemic, the airport and flying experience has become a crap shoot. Every time I enter an airport these days, I just never know how it’s going to go. Will it be a smooth trip? Or should I brace myself for a chaotic storm? While you have no control over flight delays or cancellations, there are absolutely some things you can do to have a smoother experience. Here are some of my tried and true tips!

Your Ultimate Airport Survival Guide

Months Before…

Surviving the airport really begins months before you arrive when you book your flight. There are some choices you can make to increase your chances of a successful experience.

Book directly with the airline.

Instead of using third party booking sites like Expedia or Skyscanner, go directly to your airline’s website and book your flight there. If something goes wrong, you’ll have priority over the people who didn’t.

If you want to take it a step further, sign up for the airline’s frequent flier program. Even for those without status or a ton of mileage in their accounts, it still helps to stand out from the normal flier.

Direct, morning flights are the best flights to book.

For the absolute best chance at a smooth experience, book a morning flight. That plane came in the night before, so both the airport staff and the flight crew are still feeling fresh!

Problems compound as the day goes long and the largest percentage of disrupted flights happens after 3:00 PM. Not to mention the later you leave your flight, the more likely you’re getting staff who are nearing the end of their shift and have likely just spent all day dealing with stressed out fliers and flight issues. Think about yourself – are you happier and friendlier in hour one of a work shift or hour seven?

As another bonus, morning flights often offer the cheapest, direct flight. Airlines know most of us can’t get our butts out of bed at 4:00 AM, hence the financial appeal. I know it’s tough to wake-up at the literal crack of dawn, but if you can do it, you’ll be rewarded!

Choose destinations based on direct flight.

Of course, usually we have the destination in mind before we consider the flight. However, if you’re fairly open with your vacation destination, why not just make it easier? Before you look at destinations, see which places have direct flights from your airport. Puerto Rico has four direct flights a day while another island country only has two and a potential layover? Puerto Rico it is!

You’d also be surprised at how many destinations have direct flights to your airport. Airlines always add new routes for popular countries, so even if a direct route didn’t exist a few years ago, it might exist now.

Double Check All Your Luggage Meets the Size Requirements

There’s been buzz online about how many carry-on suitcases are slightly larger than airline allowance. While most airlines are fairly lenient, many are absolute sticklers and will check to make sure your luggage is small enough. Just double check online both on your airline’s baggage allowance and your luggage’s dimensions to make sure everything matches up.

Before You Leave

Download the Airline’s App

There are always different ways to get information about your flight. I think the most common is to gather around the flight information board and wait until your flight pops up. However, airlines are a lot more tech savvy these days than they were even a few years ago. Just about every airline has its own app, and I strongly recommend downloading it before you get to the airport.

The apps will alert you to all information you need to know about your flight from delays to gate changes to cancellations. You should also be able to rebook from your app as well. This past spring when my flight was diverted, and I had to spend an unexpected night in Detroit, the airline sent the vouchers to my app with a list of hotels that would honor said vouchers, AND I could book the room FROM the app. Doesn’t get much more straightforward than that!

Download FlightAware

Another app I love is FlightAware. The concept is simple. The company is able to track real time, worldwide flight traffic. In many cases, it’s sent me time changes for my flights a good ten minutes before the airline app. If you know anything about airports – ten minutes can be a huge game changer! In those extra ten minutes I had, I could connect with customer service ahead of the rest of my fellow passengers.

Check-in as early as possible.

You know one very annoying thing many airlines do? They oversell flights. Yes, I know, I can’t believe this is legal. But if you don’t check-in until you arrive at the airport, you run the risk of not having a seat. This has happened to so many people I know – and not just on budget airlines! Essentially what will happen is the gate agent has to call customer service and rebook you on the next available flight.  Even if it’s only a few hours later, that can really mess with your travel plans.

Most airlines open up check-in 24 hours before the flight. I recommend setting an alarm and checking ASAP to not only get the best seat possible but also to guarantee your spot.

The Day of Flying

Always bring a scarf or sweater.

I always like to wear some sort of scarf or even tie a sweater around my waist even in the hottest of summer climates. Many airports (and airplanes) are quite cold, so it’s nice to have an extra layer. Even if you don’t need it, you can scrunch them up to act as a pillow! These really come in handy if you’re stuck at your gate with repeated delays and all you want to do is rest your head.

Bring some snacks you know you like.

Airports generally have most snacks we like (just at a high mark-up), but if you have a particular protein bar or snack bag you prefer, just make yourself a little pouch. This way you’re not relying on airport offerings in case of delays.

Samantha Brown waits for her luggage at the baggage claim

Try your best not to check a bag.

This goes double for anyone traveling in summer and if you do not have a direct flight. I know it’s hard and sometimes impossible. Trust me, I have two kids; I know I can’t travel carry-on only if it’s a family trip!

However, the closest you can get to carry-on only, the smoother your whole airport experience will be. If you check-in online, you’ll literally be able to skip right to TSA and breeze past baggage claim on your way out the door. That could easily be an extra 1-2 hours. Plus if you can breeze past baggage claim, it means you’re earlier to catch any airport transfers or taxis and are more likely to avoid yet another line.

Plus, it’s just a lot less of a headache in the case of flight delays or cancellations. Trust me, if your first flight gets delayed and you have about 20 minutes to get to your connecting flight, your checked bag is very likely not making it.

Always have a few days worth of clothes and all essentials in your carry-on.

Back to the above, if you do have to check a bag, at least make sure you have a few days’ worth of clothes and all of your essentials in your carry-on. If you’re traveling with a partner, cross pollinate! Trust me, the worst case scenario is your checked bag getting delayed, and you’re stranded somewhere without clothes or toiletries for at least 24-48 hours. Imagine how frustrating that could be if you don’t know the local shopping scene! And it’s even more frustrating if shops don’t even cater to your size, so you really have no options.

Get to the airport as early as possible.

Have you ever gotten to the airport too early? No! I have never once thought, “Oh man, I’m here too early! What am I going to do with all this time on my hands?” Never. I always say, err on the side of caution. Most airlines suggest 2 hours before a domestic flight and 3 hours before an international flight. I say base that time frame on boarding time NOT departure time.

Know your rights as a traveler.

The U.S. Department of Transportation now has an updated Airline Customer Service Dashboard. These dashboards give you a very quick idea of what you’re entitled to without having to go through the 20-page contracts most airlines have you sign off on when you purchase. Seriously, in all my years in the travel community, my friend, travel expert and analyst Peter Greenberg, is the only person I know in this world who has ever read that!

One Last Important Tip

Have a plan B and C and even D for important trips.

About a week out from your trip ask yourself what happens if this flight is canceled?  How would I still get to my destination? Create a document with your booking number at the top and the customer service number you need to call. As a bonus add the airline’s social media – sometimes I’ve found I can get through to an actual person more quickly on Instagram or Twitter than calling.

On that document, make a list of alternate flights and their numbers throughout the day. Look at connecting flights as well as direct. You may also want to look at airports within 2-3 hours of your destination. Could you potentially fly into those airports and then rent a car to drive the final leg?

The point is to think about these things when you are relaxed and it’s just a theory. When these major unavoidable disruptions happen, you’re too stressed to think clearly. But now if things go wrong, you have a plan in black and white, and you’re building in mental flexibility to accept that things could change!

To all my fellow, battle-tested frequent fliers out there, do you have any airport tips to add? Let me know below!

This Post Has 50 Comments

  1. Great tips here! I’ve done my fair share of traveling, and did not know some of them. I’ve learned a valuable lesson though: if you have to make a connection via NYC or Boston to Europe, allow more than an hour between flights. I cut it close one time but the airline took pity on me because it was not my fault. The next year’s booking, I gave myself 2 hours minimum connection time, and breathed much easier.

  2. Also, please remember to remove laptops, breathing machines or game boxes (XBox, Playstation) etc… from your carry-on bag when going thru the TSA checkpoint. Triple check those carry-on bags for any drinks – they’re not permitted and always cause a hold-up in line when TSA needs to check inside your bag!

  3. I actually am in line waiting to check my bags two hours or more before my flight takes off. I always assume that there will be a long line somewhere. That leaves me with plenty of time to find my gate and relax. Running through the terminal (which I have done) is not a fun exercise.

    1. The site is great! I, too, was hoping for a way to ditnisguish between airports I’d flown to and airports that I’d been flown to.Looking at other people’s maps sure was humbling. I still have a couple to add when I have a chance to check my logbook, but boy, are my flights ever local. Farthest south: Columbus, OH. Farthest west: Columbus, OH. Lewis or Clark, I ain’t.

  4. I LOVE AIRPORTS TOO!! I watch the people and wonder where they are going. Vacation? To visit relatives? Business? Lovers flying away to paradise….sigh!! Anyway, I enjoy the experience, and there is always a story you come home with about the airport.

    1. I’m with you. I love the airport! It means I’m going somewhere or have just returned and that is always a great feeling. Plus you always see such interesting characters – kids on their first school trip, retirees enjoying their golden years, newlyweds going on their honeymoon. Airports themselves can be pretty interesting too. My carry on is a bag with spinner wheels so it’s easy to transport through the terminals. This allows me to easily walk around to check out all the shops and see what food options are available. In Japan this is especially fun.

    2. I agree with you too! I LOVE AIRPORTS especially (you might think I’m crazy) The Atlanta Airport. I love the feeling of going somewhere and people watching walking up and down the terminal and looking at the destinations on the gate boards.

  5. Bring my own soft blanket.
    Don’t trust airline blankets to be sanitary.
    Plus, on long delays in terminal, great to sleep on or sleep under.
    Rolled up, makes a pillow.
    Outside, it’s a coat while I wait for the shuttle.

  6. I LOVE airports too! They represent travel, adventure, and excitement. Even taking a friend to drop off at the airport is fun, although I would rather be the one leaving on a jet plane. For my 16th birthday (many years ago) I was given my choice of where to go for dinner — I chose to eat at a restaurant at the airport, where I could watch the planes departing.

    1. Oh my goodness, me too!!!
      I love it when someone asks me to pick them up from the airport. I arrive a minimum of 1 hour before they are expected to land just so I can sit and eat sipping an ice cold adult beverage and watch the activity outside around the planes.

  7. Yes also love airports they are great for people and plane watching.
    My best bit of advise is to be polite and use your manners if your flight is delayed or you are late for your flight I find the airport and airline staff are more helpful if you don’t loose your temper at them.
    Also it’s worth getting an app for the airport you are leaving or flying to on your phone they are a great help with airport maps and depature gates and times.

  8. We always arrive early and like to pass the time at the airport by making a list of Celebrity Look-Alikes. You’d be surprised how many “almost” famous people we have seen rushing from terminal to terminal. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll even spot a real celebrity…hopefully Samantha Brown! 😉

  9. I feel a little bit smarter knowing that my family and I travels like Samantha Brown!! Early flights, exercising in the terminals, games and lists and do not forget all the people watching!! Airports are what you make them and I choose to make them part of a fun environment and part of the vacation experience.

  10. Hi Samantha;Love your new web layout.
    Nice seeing you in Scottsdales AZ for the AMG Conference. You are the best!!!!
    Love this article, great Airport Survival tips,
    My 2 or 3 cents;
    In Rule #4, I would add, Travelers can always be stress free by using a Travel Agent to rebook, reissue and find their best connections, they can seat, enjoy a Margaritha or Mojito in the lounge Bar without making any long lines at the Airline counters 😉 (wink)
    7- I also reccomend travelers to invest in their luggage to be light and easy to carry around in case they have to run and change gates last minute.
    8- Will be best to use Hand bags that allow you to free both hands , very useful when checking in, pulling the rest of baggage and when placing items in security (TSA) best are backpacks, or cross body bags,
    9- As Floridian, I rarely wear socks, but traveling is good to buy a dollar store pair of socks to walk trough security, perhaps in the plane and then dont feel so guilty to toss them away.
    10-I always travel with my Total Pillow,sqeezes in the backback,or I placed in the carry on handles,wont fall because is a close circle, gives great support for neck, back,elbows,great if you have to wait a long time at the gates.
    Cant wait to my next trip..going to India in September and as always will be sure to use your Traveling tips! Happy Travels!..Cessy

  11. I didn’t know they no longer make you keep your id and boarding pass out through the body scanner. That’s nice to know! You learn something new every day. 😉

    I’m also one of those rare people who love airports! I sometimes show up hours early just to get photos and video.

    Thanks for sharing your tips!

  12. If eligible enroll in the global entry program–makes clearing domestic security at those airports that have pre check and customs coming into the US both a snap.

  13. This Content is very helpful to me, where iam going to travel first time.. My kid was 5 years old. so iam tensioned about selecting travel accessories for my travel. Here you gave us a very clear details for airport traveling necessary things, thanks. try to post necessary things in seasonal wearing also…

  14. I was wondering, what classes do you have to take in high school to be a travel guide? What all do you have to do?

  15. i always wear socks and birkenstocks on board. can easily slip in & out of the birks to go to the restroom. and if your feet swell on the plane, you can adjust the bands. great comfort.

  16. i always try to fly virgin america from lax to jfk. among other good things, they allow you to plug your computer into their electrical system so you dont have to worry about your puter running out of juice. and you buy wi-fi access. great for reading the news & your email, etc.

  17. I fly a LOT. Mid-tier loyalty program. One thing I do is make sure I have 24 hours worth of any medications, packed in a snack-size zip-loc, in an inside zipper compartment of my handbag. This would include any prescriptions I’m currently taking, and any ‘good possibility’ OTC meds like antihistamines or aspirin/Aleve. Nothing worse than needing a med and have to go digging through the carry-on that’s in the overhead. For men, the same little plastic bag can fit easily into a pocket. And if you’re going to have to take something soon after boarding, buy a bottle of water once inside Security. If you start asking the flight crew for a beverage immediately after boarding, you’ll annoy the crap out of them, and may not get the water in time to meet your scheduled dose.

  18. Never go near an airport without a book!
    Light fiction that you can read in increments works for me.

  19. I always take a very small (wallet-sized) cross-shoulder handbag that I can tuck into the top of my carry-on. It accomplishes two things: 1) I only have to deal with one carry-on, and 2) when I get to my destination(s), I don’t have to drag a backpack or carry-on sized bag with me everywhere. I’ve had lots of women stop me in airports and tell me what a great idea this is, and once had an gate employee tell me that it wasn’t allowed because I was ‘carrying two bags’ (he was told that he was wrong by his boss).

  20. If you’re traveling internationally and have bags to check, don’t try to cut your arrival time too close — my parents were allowed to board their RSW-YYZ flight when they arrived 90 minutes prior, but their checked luggage was denied! This meant that at least one Christmas gift had to be discarded at the check-in gate because it was an item that wasn’t permitted in their carry on bags.

  21. Hi Samantha. I read the tip about ear plugs to rule out those annoying announcements, I agree if you are in the airport and it’s not your gate, but if you are on the plane ALWAYS listen to the pre-flight announcement and the safety briefing. The cabin could loose oxygen and you wouldn’t know what to do (even if you’ve heard it 80,000 times, the announcement could change) I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist,
    hope that helps Samantha! 🙂

  22. Purchased you carry on and Dr. tote for Mary Kay Seminar 50th Anniversary in pink!!!! Saw other colors of same in Dallas but people offered to buy it out from under me, and it was noticed and remarked about by many. Even those that had navy, burgundy, black and teal. I am still just in love with it! Could not have made a better choice!

  23. I love to travel and always make sure I have my “ear planes”. If you are like me and always get a terrible ear ache on the plane due to high altitude and air pressure, the ear planes (or generic brand) really do work. For me, chewing gum, doesn’t work at all. The ear planes look just like ear plugs you would wear in the water, except these have a small hole through the middle to help with regulating the air flow in your ear canal while flying. I’ve used them for years and swear by them. You can get these at any drug store..over the counter.

  24. Enjoyed your tips…
    In Australia you cannot travel with fruit , eat it before you board much like trying to enter the USA with fruit or meat.
    For weight free luggage allowance , travel business class , use those points and you get free access to those quiet lounges plus food. A lot also have free internet centres with computers , saves the use of your mobiles.
    Some have free access to showers , they supply the towels, great way to freshen up after an over night flight waiting for connection.
    Have your TA or yourself allow extra connection time when arriving at an airport where you have to be processed through Immigration and Customs before your connecting flight. I always add an extra two hours as airlines are famous for saying you can make a 45 minute connection. The same rule applies for domestic connections, ask for the second flight leaving

  25. As one who works for a major airline I offer the following suggestions:

    1. If you travel frequently, join an airline club. When flights are delayed or worse, cancelled, the lines are so much shorter in the club than in the terminal. And the club offers a respite from the chaos.

    2. Get to the airport early. Make sure you have at least an hour between connections. The airport I work in is very large, and when there is bad weather, the train will not operate. Walking will take some extra time.

    3. Allow for long lines for TSA, especially on Mondays and Fridays. If you don’t you may miss your flight, and the airline may not have a seat for you for a long while, if at all for a few days. Especially if there has been weather.

    4. Pack a jacket no matter where you are going or from. Airports are cold, and if your flight is delayed, you may get chilly.

    5. Wear comfortable shoes on the plane. The kind that will remain on your feet should something happen (God Forbid) and you need to deplane in an emergency. I love high heels too, but I NEVER wear them when plane travel is involved.

    6. Be nice to the gate agent. The job they have is very stressful and people at times are rude. Please know that yelling at them because your plane is delayed due to maintenance or weather is futile. It may make you feel better, but they can’t do anything to change the situation, and you will look like a mean person..other passengers will see you that way as well as the gate agent. Use that frustration to write a letter to the airline.

    7. Understand weather is weather. The airline wants to get you out as much as you want to go. However, the flight crew wants to give you a safe journey, and return home to their families.

    Be a lot…look at life as a treasure.

  26. Good tips. Also keep food odor to a minimum. A couple I sat next to on a plane a couple of weeks ago had half a tuna sandwich each. I think each half was a full aroma.

  27. Take a picture of your bag before you hannd it over at the counter for checkin. If your bag is lost or delayed it helps to describe the bag when you lodge your complaint at the destination.

  28. After we park up at the airport, we always snap a picture of the sign that indicates what floor/section we are in. This little tip has saved us anxiety on more than one occasion!

  29. We often stay at a hotel the night before our flight and leave our car there. Taking a picture on our phone of the claim ticket for our car saves worry about losing it.

  30. I would also recommend that you are really aware of the luggage restrictions if you are traveling internationally.
    A few times I was stunned over some of the restrictions, esp. to Latin/South America. To be fair, I was moving there for a new job
    so I was taking more than normal (6 bags), but since I routed through Bogota, instead of flying straight from the US to Brazil, I was denied
    and booked for the next day (only allowed 5 bags). Some other workers flew directly from the US to Brazil and were allowed to take
    over 20 bags !!

  31. I have loved airports since I was a young child and my dad would take us up to the flight deck and let us watch them take off and land. They don’t allow that anymore of course, but that started my love of flying and all things travel related . I always pamper myself at the airport-better chocolates, good headphones, even upgrades if possible. Best, keep your cool, smile and be appreciative!

  32. Please, no nuts or peanut butter on public transport spoken from a very allergic lady. Good hints other than that though

  33. I always get to the airport as prepared for TSA as I can be. I arrive without my sweater on or take it off before heading into TSA line, put all the electronics in the same easy to reach place, leave my belt off, etc… Once I pass through security I take a couple minutes to rearrange everything to how I actually want it. Doesn’t do much to make other people move faster, but at least it saves you some of the annoying, embarrassing shuffle.
    I take a reusable water bottle and fill it with water after I pass security.
    Also, IMPORTANT: if flying domestically within the United States, double check that you don’t need your passport or a “Real ID” as states are shifting toward requiring more than your regular ID/license. This will be true for EVERY state starting in October 2020

  34. I fly to the UK often. One thing I’ve learned is to wear a knit jacket that is comfortable, stretchy, and has zippered pockets or at least good snap pockets. Before I get on the plane I put my passport, reading glasses, tissues, an pen and chapstick in my pockets. They are securely zipped in and when sitting in a tight seat with strangers next to you I’m not continuously bending to try to get stuff out of my purse. Put your most needed items in your pockets!

  35. If you have to reserve a wheelchair through your airline for outbound flights, I’d add a minimum of 30 extra minutes (maybe even an hour) of extra time to allow the chair to be brought to the ticketing area after you alert the agent you are there. Airlines are consistently horrible in getting wheelchairs to you expeditiously, although for inbound flights they are always waiting for you at the door of the aircraft.

  36. If you land in LAX with Aer Lingus from Dublin the walk to the baggage takes ages ! Don’t be to proud to hitch a lift with the little carts that take you down the tunnel – make sure you have some cash for a tip !

  37. Note which bag went with which luggage tag if you check bags. When all four of our bags were lost last summer I didn’t know which bag went with which tag when I had to file a lost bag claim per tag and needed to describe the bag.

    Also dress easy – why wear the belt and tie up shoes and all that jewelry keep it easy and simple.

    Last I always place my handbag through security last so it’s not hanging out on the flip side without me too long.

  38. Travel in shoulder or off season if possible.
    If you do not feel comfortable with booking directly with the airline, use a travel agent/human who can help you if stranded or delayed.

  39. Make sure people know that direct flights make one or more stops on the way to their destination. Nonstops are nonstop to their destination. I’m a retired airline ticket agent and this is sometimes confusing for people

  40. If I’m flying through or to an airport I’m not familiar with, I check out the map online before the trip. It gives me an idea of the layout, what concourse(s) I ‘ll need to navigate, how far it might be between gates, and how far it is to the airport exit. Most importantly, it shows me where the nearest bar is!

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