10 Tips for Easier Family Holiday Air Travel

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I’ve read plenty of articles stating that 2014 winter holiday travel is shaping up to be one of the busiest, if not the busiest, yet.  This seems to be true both on the road and in the skies thanks to low gas prices, lower airline ticket prices, the economy, and having Christmas Day fall on a Thursday as to maximize the number of days that many people get off from work.  This all means that even if you are used to traveling during busy holiday seasons, it may be even a bit busier this go ’round.

Novice and potentially stressed traveling families, full planes, weather issues, and more can make for a less-than-ideal travel situation at the airports this week, but it doesn’t have to be terrible with a little information and planning.  Here are ten tips for easier holiday family travel.

1.  Follow weather delays closely and proactively try and get ahead of them. 

One of the absolute busiest holiday travel days at the airports is already behind us (December 19th), but there are plenty of busy days still to come, and if you are heading to the airport in the coming days my #1 piece of advice is to monitor the weather and other potential delays closely, and then try to get ahead of those issues whenever possible.

According to USA Today, the Christmas Week weather forecasts seem to be calling for heavy rain in the South and Southeast on Tuesday in Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville and Montgomery, Alabama., before impacting the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Detroit. On Christmas Eve, the storm will gather impact areas from Tampa to eastern North Carolina up to D.C., Philadelphia and Boston.

If any of those areas of the country are in your travel plans (including connections) for those dates then stay on the look for updates and opportunities to potentially get a “weather waiver” and change your routing or travel days in advance of the storms.  Many weather waivers were issued during the Thanksgiving travel week during similar storms.   You can call the airline, or better yet, check the airline’s website for update on any weather change waivers.

2.  Double check your seat assignments.

Whether you need to change your flight or not, family travelers need to be very closely keeping an eye on seat assignments if your kids are still at an age where you need to be seated next to them.  If you don’t have seats assigned together, try to rectify this problem immediately either online or by calling the airline.  If the plane is full, it may not be possible to get seats together at this point.  If for some reason you don’t have seats assigned next to each other by the time you board, then be ready to beg and barter on-board for a couple of seats together.  Read this post for more tips on getting and keeping your seats together.

On the flip side, if sitting next to your family is a “nice to have” at this point and not imperative, then please try to be flexible to accommodate others who still have little children (if asked) who may be scrambling to sit together due to cancellations and last minute flight changes.

3.  Know your airline lounge access and use it.

If you have lounge access thanks to a co-branded credit card that gives ongoing access (like the American Airlines Citi Executive Card or Amex Platinum card) or even just one-time use passes that some credit cards send out annually (like the United MileagePlus Explorer Card), then bring them and use them.  Lounge access may be your best friend in the event of delays, or even just to get away from the gate area for a little bit on a longer connection.   Don’t forget that cards like the Ink Plus give two complimentary lounge visits per year via the Lounge Club (then $27).

SFO Centurion Lounge Family Room TV

SFO Centurion Lounge Family Room TV

If you don’t have built-in lounge access, you can often buy a one-day pass for somewhere in the neighborhood of $50.  That isn’t normally worth it, but could be during the busy holiday travel season in the event of long delays.

4.  Use time savers like “Pre-Check” and curbside baggage check-in to make life much easier.

If there is curbside baggage check-in available, use it (and try to get someone to drop you off at the airport, too).  The lines to check bags inside the terminal may be longer, and the quicker you can free yourselves of hauling bags, the better.   Just be sure to tip a couple of dollars.  If you are eligible for Pre-Check remember to use it, and pay attention to your boarding passes because it is still being given out randomly.  My parents both received Pre-Check randomly several times in the past month, so look at your boarding pass before deciding which security line to head toward.  Remember that children 12 and under can go through Pre-Check without being selected or eligible as long as they are with an eligible adult.

5.  Know the TSA rules on presents and pies

If you plan to fly with wrapped presents or a home-made pecan pie then be sure to read-up on what the TSA does and does not allow in carry-on bags.  Wrapped presents are not prohibited, but if they set off an alarm or otherwise need to be examined more closely they may have to be unwrapped.  Pies and similar items are also permitted, but creamy dips, jams, sauces, and jellies are considered liquids and treated to the same restrictions as other liquids.

6.  Know your airline’s rules and fees for carry-on and checked bags.

Before packing up your stuff and heading to the airport, make sure you are 100% clear on your airline’s rules and fees for carry-on and checked bags.  Budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit charge for anything brought on-board larger than a personal item (back pack or purse), while airlines like United and American will allow a normal sized carry-on for free, and Southwest still allows two free checked bags.  In other words, every airline is very different these days in what is allowed where and for what cost, so brush up on your baggage A-B-C’s before being surprised at the airport.  I also strongly advise paying attention to size and weight limits as some airlines (like United) have tightened up the enforcement of these restrictions in the last year.

If you have small children, also note the rules on stroller size restrictions and whether travel gear like car seats will incur additional fees (they usually don’t).   If you have elite status or a co-branded airline credit card also remember that you may have some some built-in checked bag benefits that will protect you from some checked bag fees.

7.  Have your gadgets charged and airline numbers/apps loaded.

At some airports that haven’t undergone recent renovations, power outlets may be in short supply, so be sure to head to the airport with all of your electronic gadgets fully charged.  This will help not only keep the family entertained while waiting for your flight, but it may also be essential if there is a need to contact the airline to try and get alternate flight plans in the event of major delays or cancellations.

Having the airline’s app loaded can also help as you may be able to make the changes you need right there without talking to anyone, but also have the phone number available as that can be faster than waiting in a long line at the airport.  In fact, if you find yourself in a long line to try and get re-booked at the airport, call the airline on the phone at the same time as you may get a resolution faster.  Always offer suggestions of other flights that will work to the agent whether over the phone or in-person at the airport.

8.  Bring everything you need to keep the kids entertained, fed, clean, and happy-ish

We already know there are likely to be some flight delay issues this week thanks to weather, so that is a good reminder to pack everything you need for your kids for the duration of the flight, and then some.  If you think two diapers will suffice for the duration of the flight, pack six.  If you think one bag of goldfish will be enough, pack three.  You understand the idea….  If you are stuck in a delay the airline is not going to be able to meet your family’s needs for food, entertainment, diapers, etc. so be prepared with everything you need and then some.

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I don’t like checking bags at all, but it is worth checking some bags in order to be sure you have everything you need in your carry-on to meet the needs of small children on-board the aircraft.  I also recommend not relying on electronics for 100% of your children’s entertainment as batteries can die and things can break.  Throw some crayons, paper. silly putty, or even pipe cleaners in your bag to help keep them occupied.

If you are traveling with young children or babies, check out this post for some additional travel tips specific to that age range.

9.  If all heck breaks loose, use the benefits on the card you used to pay for travel

Many rewards credit cards offer some pretty solid trip delay or interruption coverage when you use them to pay for your trip.  I wrote an article recently about this coverage for Money Talks News that you can read here.  Your credit card may offer some assistance with additional expenses incurred due to delays such as meal and hotel reimbursement, even when the airline won’t, so be sure to know what card you used to pay for your trip so that you can utilize those benefits if all heck breaks loose and you end up stuck somewhere for the night unable to get to your final destination.

10.  Smile and be merry.

This is easier said than done, but many of us are traveling this week because of Christmas and the season of cheer.  I know it can be stressful trying to get to your relative’s house in time for the holiday celebration, especially if there are delays, but try to keep things in perspective.  Even if things don’t go 100% smoothly along the way, be kind to everyone you encounter who is working this week to help get you where you need to be.  The gate agents, flight attendants, TSA employees, and more are all working on a week that many of us have off, so a little kindness can go a long way.

Being nice to other travelers is also priceless because many of them probably don’t travel as frequently as you might, so they may not be as knowledgeable about the process, and may be more anxious about how their kids will do on the plane.

Safe travels and Happy Holidays!

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