It is not easy to travel during the December holiday season. But this year it could be even more difficult. Passenger traffic is expected to almost reach pre-pandemic levels, even though airlines are still short of pilots and planes.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Transportation Security Administration checked 2.5 million passengers. This is the highest number of passengers screened in a single November day since 2019. Hopper data suggests that 18% more domestic passengers could leave from domestic airports this year, as compared to last year.

What do you get when you combine surging demand and a struggling supply? It’s a frothy cup full of holiday chaos. But savvy travelers can still avoid major disruptions.

Here’s how.

Booked? Fly like a professional

If you are like most travelers, then you have already booked your travel. This means that avoiding disruption headaches is more about planning for the worst and hoping to be the best.

  • If you can, avoid checked luggage. You can ship the gifts, rather than bringing them in a bag.

  • Before you leave for home, check the status of your flight. It’s an easy step to overlook in the hurry to leave the house. Although airlines are good at notifying customers about delays in advance these days, it’s worth checking.

  • Be prepared for any disruptions. If you are stuck at the airport for long periods of time, extra food, a pillow, and warm clothes can help.

It doesn’t mean you have to be a complete prepper and pack enough food freeze-dried to survive the zombie apocalypse at LAX. It is prudent to assume that at most one leg of a roundtrip flight will have a problem during peak travel times. Prepare accordingly.

Don’t wait until the last moment to book

You waited too long to book your flight? There may not be many options for affordable flights left, but you can still follow these guidelines to avoid disruptions.

  • When possible, book direct flights. There are more places where an itinerary can go wrong, the longer it has.

  • Select a reliable airline. NerdWallet’s recent analysis found that Hawaiian, Delta, and Alaska airlines had the highest overall operation ratings, while Frontier Spirit, JetBlue, and Spirit had the lowest.

  • Avoid stoppingovers in winter cities. Fly through Denver or Dallas. It might be a good idea to choose warmer airports for stopovers in December. Also, check the weather forecast.

Are you having difficulty finding an affordable option last-minute? You might consider using points or miles to save money on high-cost cash flights.

Holiday travel, or not?

Long, winding security lines at airports are the best way to celebrate Yuletide season. These lines can be more than just a hassle. They can mean the difference between a smooth flight and one that is cancelled. These lines can often be avoided.

  • Clear, a private membership, allows you to skip the long line by using biometrics such as fingerprints. Although it is not cheap, you can get some discounts and perks with your credit card.

  • You might not be able to sign up for TSA PreCheck in time, but you can renew your membership if it isn’t expired.

  • Many rental car companies offer direct pick-up. This feature is usually available by signing up for the rewards program. It can save you a lot of time during holidays.

  • Previously, you could check out of hotels without having to wait in line. However, apps and elite status perks make this possible now that it is easier to check in online.

You should budget for the time you spend waiting in line. You should allow at least 45 minutes extra to clear security, especially if you are traveling during busy times at airports. Hopper has provided a list of the busiest airports and their peak times.

Expected passenger traffic

The busiest time to fly

Atlanta (ATL).


Morning 8:45 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Denver (DEN)


Morning 8:45 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)


Morning 8:45 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Los Angeles (LAX)


Morning 8:45 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Las Vegas (LAS)

Afternoon, 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Orlando (MCO)

Evening, 4 p.m.-8 p.m.

Chicago-O’Hare (ORD)

Evening, 4 p.m.-8 p.m.

Phoenix, PHX.

Morning 8:45 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

New York City (JFK).

Evening, 4 p.m.-8 p.m.

Miami (MIA).

Evening, 4 p.m.-8 p.m.

Relatively calm

You can avoid the worst aspects of holiday travel chaos by taking the necessary steps, such as minimizing your checked baggage and allowing yourself ample time to clear security. You can only do so many things.

Most air travel disruptions can be attributed to something beyond the control of the passenger, such as weather and airline cancellations. This can reduce stress, if and whenever things go wrong.

You might also look back at your time on the tarmac after you have settled down with your family.

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