How I Almost Let a Basic Holiday Travel Reality Ruin Our Trip

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I’ve traveled many times before over Thanksgiving, during the Christmas break, and on busy summer travel weekends.  Heck, I’ve even written plenty of travel tips for families traveling during the busy holiday seasons, but somehow yesterday I still nearly blanked on a big challenge unique to flying during the busy holiday season and as a result nearly ruined our trip.  Here’s how I almost blew my husband’s surprise trip before we ever left the ground.

Knowing the holiday travel season can be a bit unpredictable, we allowed extra time at the airport, flew through security with Pre-Check, had assigned seats together, followed all the baggage and carry-on rules, didn’t pack a large snow globe in our carry-on, left all of our jams and jellies at home, tracked our flight and knew it was on-time, but we missed planning for one key holiday travel challenge.

We did everything right inside the airport, but we failed to calculate just how full the airport parking lots would be on December 27th.  December 27th is not one of the busiest holiday travel days in terms of passengers going through the airport, but it has to be one of the peak occupancy dates for the airport parking lots since virtually everyone who is going to be gone for the holidays is still gone.  To make matters worse, we had an early morning departure which meant that not only were the parking spots full, but folks weren’t really even landing yet to pick up their cars that morning.

Normally we have my parents drop us off at the airport both to save money on parking and to make the travel experience easier.  We often do the same for them on their trips.  However, since we had an early morning departure, were just going to be gone one night, and they were watching our daughter, we didn’t add to their to-do list with an airport drop-off and pick-up.  We also live too far into suburbia for any kind of public transportation or Uber to be a realistic option.

Since it was just a one-night trip we headed to the parking garage for our terminal and while the signs said “full”, an attendant was letting people in while keeping count on a clipboard.  We thought spots would be scarce, but available.  However after 20+ minutes of driving in circle with tons of other cars in the garage like bees circling a hive, it became clear there were literally zero available spots.  Any hope of snagging a returning passengers’ spot were dashed when we didn’t see a single returning passenger during our search.

At this point I had pulled up the Houston Airport Parking website (which I clearly should have done before heading to the airport) and saw that there was indeed an airport-wide parking problem with lots showing full almost across the board.

I had to start thinking creatively pretty fast if we were going to make our flight, so even though it was the most expensive option, I called valet parking to see if they had any available spots and was told they did have a couple at the terminal we were at.  After haggling to get out of the parking garage we were in that had no available spots, we made it to the valet parking entrance only to be told that it was now shut down (as was the entire parking garage at this point).  We begged the attendant to let us in since we had just called 3 minutes prior to ask about a spot, and we were ultimately reluctantly let in with a warning that it was probably full.

Thankfully, while the valet lot was over-stuffed with cars being left sort of everywhere, they took our car.  We gave a tip and big thanks and made a dash for the terminal.  Since later flights that day were full, missing our flight would have been a very big problem for our 24 hour trip, and ultimately would have probably made it a pointless endeavor.

A little last minute creative thinking and luck were on our side to make the trip possible, but I’m pretty sure I will never forget to factor in airport parking lot space again when traveling over the holidays!

Has a holiday travel basic ever almost flubbed your plans?



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  1. @wendym, hope you weren’t parked at the off airport parking lot in Orlando that just shut down with 450 cars safely secured out of their owners’ reach

  2. I had a similar problem at HOU 2 years ago. Tried to book online with the parking spot, but they werent taking reservations, i didnt even think about why… Luckily did find another off airport parking place with like 2 spots left. The next year, we just cabbed it.

  3. Several of the larger airport off-property parking companies have loyalty programs that guarantee you a spot — with or without a reservation. I use PreFlight, who has a number of locations, and not only do I get that guarantee, I earn airline miles and free parking credits!

  4. Glad it worked out! We had something similar…..I was late to pickup my wife on the way to the airport, she was then late to leave her office and meet me at the car, we hit traffic on the way to the airport, had to endure 10 minutes of no movement on an interstate because of an accident up ahead…..all the worst possible outcomes for our small, easier-to-use airport in KC. And this was our positioning flight for an international, week-long trip. Tensions were rising quickly. So my quick thinking was to park in the expensive lot right next to terminal, I left my keys underneath the tire and out-of-sight. We rushed to the terminal to check bags, only to be warned they may not make the flight since we’re under 30 minutes until departure (not good news). Thankfully we breezed through security and walked right onto the plane. My wife anxiously watched out the window and spotted our suitcases making it over to the loading area. Whew! I then called a friend to swing by the airport that night and retrieve our car. Once that was taken care of, phone went into airplane mode, we took off, and we ordered drinks! Crazy crazy crazy!

  5. Luckily SFO has good public transport options. I would be fraught each holiday if I had to worry about finding an early moring parking space. Too much uncertainty. Glad it worked out. (Ps though my two early morning teips to airport this month were nearly thwarted by flooded freeway on Dec 3 storm, and a landslide over night across the freeway just before Xmas. Both times the tail backs were enormous an hour after I skirted each at 5 am. Used alot of luck recently.)

  6. this would be too mundane for you, but an option would have been to drive to the closest public park n ride, and take the bus to the airport…, or have a taxi (or uber) pick you up from there. its free to park.. I do it all the time.

  7. Austin airport had mostly full parking lots so we took taxi.

    A few years ago my mom and brother tried to get into an off airport parking lot and were initially told it was full, but they were able to get in and park after the attendant checked around.

  8. Love all the other stories. Sometimes the best laid plans…. 🙂

    During the holidays parking somewhere that has a guaranteed spot for you is a very solid plan. I don’t like to use off-airport lots for 1-2 day trips normally as the extra time it adds on the front and back end (especially with kids) isn’t worth the savings for us (and we typically just get dropped off for longer trips), but if you have to park at the airport for longer trips or need a guaranteed spot it is the way to go for sure!

  9. Probably not what people want to hear, but some airports need to raise their rates for the parking places nearest the terminals. Since there are always people trying desperately to make a flight, it make sense that the rates are high enough to ensure some empty spots in the closest lots. Who wants to miss a flight circling a parking garage?

  10. I am very jealous of my cars so I never park them at the airport 🙂 I am lucky enough to live within a short distance from the airport (not so close to hear the planes) so I get a manageable taxi fare every time I need to go there. MSP is terrible for parking and even on non busy days you may be out of luck so I never drive there.

  11. I recently spent a lot of time thinking and planning about this as it was a few days b4 Thanksgiving. We gave ourselves oodles of time only to make a turn into nightmarish traffic near the airport that had nothing to do with airport traffic. Not making our flight wasn’t really an option as we had friends waiting for us in Europe and a 30 hour window to be with them. Long story was that we made the reunion, but not without DRAMA.

  12. many airport hotels offer parking cheaper than the airport and shuttles as well.

    hindsight is 20/20 but that sinking feeling is one to try and avoid of course.

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