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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
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!
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.
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!