The Year Travel Returned to Prepandemic Levels isn’t exactly living up to the romantic notion of our long-postponed vacation dreams. As airlines and airports struggle to cope with the massive influx of air travelers following a pandemic drought, these dreams have turned nightmarish.
Every element of air travel faces a staffing crisis: There are shortages among pilots, flight attendants, airport and air traffic control crew, even on-the-ground baggage handlers. Meanwhile, there are the usual summer weather issues and operational hurdles, all resulting in massive delays at airports in the United States and abroad. Travelers report hours-long waits to check in and get through security, everywhere from Denver International Airport to Newark Liberty, Amsterdam Schiphol to London’s Heathrow; thousands of flight cancellations and delays have left fliers stranded; and lonely piles of misplaced or lost luggage have become commonplace.
Some people may feel the desire to cancel or postpone their air travel plans rather than deal with all the anxiety and uncertainty—road trip, anyone?— but many will opt to plow ahead, regardless.
For those who must or will continue to fly despite the mayhem, don’t dismay. Here are some simple actions travelers can take to minimize the stress and aggravation of air travel right now and to help ensure success. Arm yourselves with these pro tips from airline industry insiders.
What to know before you go
Get TSA PreCheck, Clear, and/or Global Entry
Never have these security expediting services been more valuable than during the current congestion happening at America’s airports. TSA PreCheck costs $85 for a five-year membership, and $70 to renew, and Clear costs $189 per year. International travelers should opt for the $100 Global Entry, which includes TSA PreCheck, for expedited customs screening upon arrival in the U.S.—and there’s a secret way to speed up the application process.
Check to see if your airport has a fast-pass security lane you can book in advance
No TSA PreCheck or Clear? Select U.S. airports are giving travelers the option to make an advance “fast pass” reservation to head to the front of the security line—free of charge. We’ve compiled the full list of airports that offer this service.
Book directly with the airline and be sure to download the airline’s app
Carriers have greatly overhauled their technology to put a lot of capabilities directly into the hands of passengers, including the ability to track flights and luggage, and—perhaps most important in the current environment—cancel and/or change your flight. This will come in handy if you need to rebook and to see the full display of flights available through your carrier. And check your flight status constantly; don’t wait for an alert.
Book with a credit card that has trip insurance coverage and/or buy travel insurance
Before buying travel insurance, “take a look at your credit card first, because a lot of credit cards already offer trip-interruption or trip-cancellation coverage,” says Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist at flight-deal tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights. In the event expenses start to mount (meals at the airport, overnight hotel stays, rebooked flights) due to flight delays and cancellation, a credit card with coverage can ensure at least a partial refund, if not full. If you don’t have or use a travel credit card with adequate coverage, you can look into adding travel insurance to your trip.
Use a travel advisor
Amazing travel advisors are capable of executing incomparable trip and itinerary planning. But it’s in times of trouble when their services might be most appreciated. They often have airline contacts and can jump on the phone to negotiate with the airlines and advocate for your rebooking, flight credit, and/or refund. Consider using a travel advisor who can serve as your most valuable ally when flight meltdowns start happening.
Book the earliest flight out you can
“The first flight of the day is more important now than ever,” says William McGee, an aviation expert and author of the book Attention All Passengers. “You should book that 6 a.m. departure,” as delays tend to pile up later in the day.
Try to book a nonstop instead of a connecting flight
Even if that means an increase in airfare, the nonstop flight is the way to go. As McGee notes, “Why double your chances of a problem if you can avoid it?”
Schedule long layovers
If you aren’t able to fly nonstop, add a buffer to those connections, especially if you’re traveling internationally and will need to pass through customs and security again. One hour won’t cut it. Shoot for at least two hours for domestic layovers and at least three for international flights.
Fly in a day (or two) early
Travel booking site Hopper advises travelers to build in days of buffer, not just hours, for any can’t-miss event or gathering, including a wedding, celebration, important business meeting, or cruise ship departure. Why not enjoy some extra time in the destination rather than risk missing it entirely?
Book a backup flight
Former airline pilot and spokesperson for flight tracking app FlightAware Kathleen Bangs will often proactively book a backup flight with a second airline as long as it doesn’t have a change fee and has a generous cancellation policy—such as with Southwest Airlines, which allows for cancellations up to 10 minutes before departure time. If you don’t end up using the backup, you can bank the flight credit for future travel.
Download the FlightAware app
Orlando swears by this flight tracking app, which can tip travelers off to any upcoming changes often before the airline does. He notes that if your flight keeps getting bumped back on the departure board, you can check FlightAware to find your aircraft on its journey. If it seems to be stuck at its previous departure city, you may want to start looking into alternative options for your flight.
Stay on top of the weather
If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming a meteorologist, now’s your chance. Check the weather radar and forecasts available on sites and apps such as the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather. “You should have a general idea of what major systems are coming across the country,” says Bangs. She adds that even if a weather issue isn’t in the region where you’re traveling, the ripple effect and strains on the system could affect your flight.
Getting to and through the airport
Check the airport website for possible construction-related delays
Summer “is construction season,” Bangs reminds us. Some airport road lanes could be closed and there may be parking detours. It’s best to know what construction projects are underway at your departure hub so you can plan accordingly. (Ditto any possible delays on the highways getting to the airport.)
Arrive at the airport earlier than usual
The lines and wait times at the country’s airports (and abroad, too) are longer than they’ve been in years. Best to arrive early and have some extra time postsecurity than risk missing your flight waiting in an hours-long check-in or security line. (It will also save you the sweat from having to run to the gate after a longer-than-expected security queue—dripping with panic is no way to start a long day of travel.) Aim for at least two hours before domestic flights and at least three for international flights, advises Orlando.
Download the MyTSA app
The Transportation Security Administration–powered app provides real-time security line wait times at airports around the country.
What’s the best strategy for luggage?
Airline status can help
If you’ve never been one to commit loyalty to one airline, you may want to consider it now. While TSA PreCheck and Clear can help with security lines, they can’t help if you’re checking bags. Typically, the check-in lines are much shorter for passengers who have elite status with any given airline. Of course, once you’ve made it through security, you can pass the time in the airline lounge with a drink, snacks, and free Wi-Fi before your flight. Some credit cards can also help with luggage fees and lounge access.
Consider traveling with carry-on only
This one is a bit of a double-edged sword because if everyone tries to bring carry-on, that can create added congestion during boarding and in the overhead bins. It may also force passengers to gate check and say goodbye to their beloved wheely bag. (This is why Bangs also always packs some essentials in her smaller personal item that stays with her.) Orlando notes he doesn’t actually mind having to gate check his bag because he at least knows it’s going straight onto the plane. For those who don’t want to risk their luggage getting lost in the baggage operations vortex, this may be your best bet. (One of our favorites is the Bigger Carry-On by Away, $295, away.com.) For shopping inspiration, check our roundup of our favorite carry-on luggage.
Make sure to have one or two days of clothes and essentials on you
For those who are devoted members of Team Checked Luggage (there are more of us than you might think), pack at least a day or two of clothes, toiletries, and any essentials in your carry-on in case you do get separated from your checked bag.
Ship your luggage
For a longer or more important journey, this may be the time to look into baggage shipping services.
What to do when things go wrong and your flight is canceled or delayed
Know your rights
Airlines are not required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled due to problems deemed beyond the company’s control, like bad weather. They also aren’t required to provide a refund when the passenger initiates the cancellation or flight change. But a refund is required by U.S. law when the airline cancels, delays, or alters a flight, or passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold or due to issues originating from the airline, such as operational or staffing problems.
Use your fliers’ rights knowledge as leverage
According to Orlando, “Knowing those rights kind of gives you priority in getting yourself rebooked.” He notes that when you approach the airline agent via phone or text message, “and you say, ‘I understand under law that I can ask for a refund and go home, but I prefer not to do that. I found this itinerary that I would like to be rebooked on’—they are highly incentivized to help you out. You’re bringing something to the table that the other customers are not. They very often will go the extra mile for you.”
Research alternate flights with the same airline, partner airlines, even competitors
As soon as you see an avalanche of delays or cancellations heading your way, start researching alternatives with the airline you are booked on, but also on partner airlines (especially for international flights), and even with competing carriers. Don’t be shy to “go to a different carrier and say, ‘How can you get me to [my destination]?’” advises Bangs. In some situations, even competing airlines with a mutual agreement to do so can allow you to transfer over a ticket. Use Google Flights to see all the options available to you.
Always ask for miles
This is another good reason to make sure you’re signed up for airline loyalty programs. If an airline rebooks you onto a different flight after a flight was canceled, it can (and should) at least offer you miles “for the inconvenience” if it doesn’t offer you other compensation, such as payment for meals or an overnight hotel stay, notes Bangs. “I would just say to the airline, ‘What can we do to make this fair?’”
Try to remain calm and friendly (and call back if the agent is not)
You can only imagine the amount of frustration fliers have right now. Good ol’ fashioned friendliness can help make headway with a weary gate, airline, or customer service agent who isn’t having an easy day (week? year?). If you’re on the phone with an agent who just does not seem like they want to help, don’t hesitate to make an excuse for ending the call and try back for another person who maybe is more willing, advises Bangs. Yes, we know that could mean another prolonged period of sitting through lounge music while on hold.
Lean on your travel advisor, friends, and family members
“If you used a travel agent, that is someone who can advocate for you. You paid for this person’s services, and when things hit the fan, this is the time to take advantage of those services,” says Orlando. If you don’t have a travel advisor, provide your flight numbers and travel details to a trusted friend or family member who can help keep flight status watch for you and provide helpful info via text or even do some behind-the-scenes research and rebooking while you are up in the air. Adds Orlando, “It’s not a bad time to call on favors.”
File a complaint with the DOT
If the airline wasn’t cooperative in providing a required refund or requested assistance, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which can be done online. It can help ensure you (finally) do get a response from the airline.
Most importantly, don’t forget to (hopefully) enjoy wherever it is you are going and to be kind to all the people who are helping to get you there under incredibly trying circumstances. (We’re looking at all of you, tired airport staff, pilots, flight attendants, air traffic control crew, and everyone else working to make our travel dreams come true.) Travel is and will always be such a privilege.
Barbara Peterson contributed reporting.
>> Next: How to Calm Your Travel Anxiety
5 ideas from vacation specialists right before reserving that pricey summer months holiday
9 Blood Sugar Tips for Travel, from a Nutritionist
Travel tips for flying with a baby in 2023